Author: Olen R. Brown

Oxygen, the Breath of Life: Boon and Bane in Human Health, Disease, and Therapy

eBook: US $49 Special Offer (PDF + Printed Copy): US $161
Printed Copy: US $137
Library License: US $196
ISBN: 978-1-68108-426-8 (Print)
ISBN: 978-1-68108-425-1 (Online)
Year of Publication: 2017
DOI: 10.2174/97816810842511170101


Oxygen is historically entwined from its discovery with radical applications as a panacea by charlatans and by daring men constructing bridges using underwater caissons. Oxygen has made possible the exploration of the depths of the oceans beginning with hard-hat diving suits and extending to scuba gear, underwater habitats and submarines as well as space exploration. Molecular oxygen is critically involved in health and disease in more ways than any other element. It is essential for metabolism of food to nourish our bodies. Understanding its biological and chemical nature helps us to understand the effects of exercise, vitamins and supplements, and drugs used for cancer therapies.

Oxygen, the Breath of Life is a comprehensive reference on the historical, biological, chemical and medical aspects of oxygen. Readers, both laymen and experts, will gain knowledge of the basics of oxygen chemistry, how it functions in the human body, the role of oxidants in the development of various diseases. Chapters contain historical notes which highlight the discoveries of pioneering researchers.


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
Columbia- MO
United States


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.


The author confirms that author has no conflict of interest to declare for this publication.