There has been enormous recent progress in understanding how human cells respond to oxidative stress, such as that caused by exposure to ionizing radiation. We have witnessed a significant deciphering of the events that underlie how antioxidant responses counter pro-oxidant damage to key biological targets in all cellular compartments, including the genome and mitochondria. These cytoprotective responses include: 1. The basal cellular repertoire of antioxidant capabilities and its supporting cast of facilitator enzymes; and 2. The inducible phase of the antioxidant response, notably that mediated by the Nrf2 transcription factor. There has also been frenetic progress in defining how reactive electrophilic species swamp existing protective mechanisms to augment DNA damage, events that are embodied in the cellular “DNA-damage response”, including cell cycle checkpoint activation and DNA repair, which occur on a time scale of hours to days, as well as the implementation of cellular responses such as apoptosis, autophagy, senescence and reprograming that extend the time period of damage sensing and response into weeks, months and years. It has become apparent that, in addition to the initial oxidative insult, cells typically undergo further waves of secondary reactive oxygen/nitrogen species generation, DNA damage and signaling and that these may reemerge long after the initial events have subsided, probably being driven, at least in part, by persisting DNA damage. These reactive oxygen/nitrogen species are an integral part of the pathological consequences of radiation exposure and may persist across multiple cell divisions. Because of the pervasive nature of oxidative stress, a cell will manifest different responses in different subcellular compartments and to different levels of stress injury. Aspects of these compartmentalized responses can involve the same proteins (such as ATM, p53 and p21) but in different functional guises, e.g., in cytoplasmic versus nuclear responses or in early- versus late-phase events. Many of these responses involve gene activation and new protein synthesis as well as a plethora of post-translational modifications of both basal and induced response proteins. It is these responses that we focus on in this review.
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