Antioxidants Are a Vital Life Force

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 13, 2007 9:12 am

great titThis great tit from Chernobyl
is neither large nor a breast.

The Journal of Applied Ecology recently published a study (pdf) about which birds are hit hardest by persistent radiation near Chernobyl. Most of the press on this focuses on the fact that brightly colored birds fare especially badly, but they’re not the only ones: Birds that migrate long distances and those that lay large eggs have also been hit especially hard.

The interesting thing is the researchers say this variation is all due to how the birds use antioxidants, the same group of chemicals that defuse free radicals and prevent cancer in people, including vitamin C and beta-carotene. All three susceptible bird groups use a lot of antioxidants for their distinctive behaviors and are therefore left with fewer antioxidants to fight off free radicals produced by radiation. The long-migrators use antioxidants in flying, the big-layers use them to make eggs, and the pretty birds use them to make bright colors. (To further prove the point about antioxidants, the researchers say the vulnerable bright birds tend to derive their colors from carotenoids—a group that includes beta-carotene—as opposed to other birds, which produce color with melanin or structural physical properties rather than pigment.)

This makes it sound like we have a bank of antioxidants cruising around our bodies and protecting us, but we only have a limited amount of them to allocate to various stresses. So eat your tomatoes, don’t flap your wings for too long, and stay the heck away from Chernobyl.

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