The facts of science are published daily in a bewildering flurry of information that arrives in scientific papers and is immediately summarized (often incorrectly) by the press and on the internet. This book was written with a broader view: to try to make sense of what we know, or think we know, and from my desire to understand and explain things. As a scientist through most of six decades, it has been a great pleasure to teach students at all college levels and my interests include microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, toxicology, and the history of science.
The specific focus of my research is oxygen and its role in health and disease. This includes oxygen free radicals, cellular defenses against the toxicity of oxygen, and the central role of oxygen in cellular metabolism. Oxygen’s dual nature was referred to as oxygen’s boon and bane by a colleague, Irwin Fridovich, and I have chosen these apt words in the title of this book. Contributions from my laboratory include: evidence that specific enzymes, but not enzymes in general, are sites of oxygen toxicity, and with Richard Seither, while a student, the discovery that hyperoxia induces genetic stringency in microbes. Stringency stops grown and metabolism and protects cells from damage.
I began laboratory research in the 1960s, an exciting time for scientists because of NASA and the stated objective by President John F. Kennedy to “Go to the moon and do it in this decade”. The US Space Program chose pure oxygen at low pressure for manned space flight. The Russian Space Program used larger rockets and chose a two-gas system of nitrogen and oxygen at atmospheric pressure because of the toxicity and fire hazard of pure oxygen. NASA’s choice ultimately led to a tragic fire on the ground in a test capsule filled with low-pressure, pure oxygen and caused the death of three Apollo 1 astronauts in 1967. My research on the mechanisms of oxygen toxicity was relevant to NASA’s Space Program and also to the Office of Naval Research where the toxicity of oxygen was a concern for deep sea diving.
This eBook was written to bring together in a popular science version, while remaining true to science, the many and varied aspects of oxygen, without which we cannot live for more than a few minutes, but which is lethal at concentration only a few times that found in the ordinary air we breathe.
Olen R. Brown
The University of Missouri
Scientific study, experimentation, and discovery brought together many individuals in my
laboratory and interactions with students; and generous and helpful colleagues contributed to
and helped me prepare to write this eBook. I thank them all with a gratitude borne out of
being fellow travelers in science and discovery. One of the great joys in science for me has
been the attempt to understand our world in the broadest sense that is reasonably possible.
Science is about asking the “how” questions. Answers are found in individual science
publications and other writings by scientists in fields from astronomy to zenobiotics
(chemicals, foreign to nature). In my lectures and study to understand science and especially
in writing this book, I have freely drawn on this body of work by many scientists from many
fields and obviously I make no claim of originality except for the research I have published.
I thank many talented individuals who created the images I have chosen to use from those
made available on the internet licensed as “free to modify, share, and use commercially”, and
those who generously provided other images I have acknowledged in figure legends.
I thank Cameron Brown for his assistance, especially for his computer skills with manuscript
preparation, and John Allan and Emily Brown, especially for their critical reading for content
and clarity, of this e-book.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The author confirms that author has no conflict of interest to declare for this publication.