Carnosine, homocarnosine and anserine have been proposed to act as antioxidants in vivo. Our studies show that all three compounds are good scavengers of the hydroxyl radical (.OH) but that none of them can react with superoxide radical, hydrogen peroxide or hypochlorous acid at biologically significant rates. None of them can bind iron ions in ways that interfere with ‘site-specific’ iron-dependent radical damage to the sugar deoxyribose, nor can they restrict the availability of Cu2+ to phenanthroline. Homocarnosine has no effect on iron ion-dependent lipid peroxidation; carnosine and anserine have weak inhibitory effects when used at high concentrations in some (but not all) assay systems. However, the ability of these compounds to interfere with a commonly used version of the thiobarbituric acid (TBA) test may have led to an overestimate of their ability to inhibit lipid peroxidation in some previous studies. By contrast, histidine stimulated iron ion-dependent lipid peroxidation. It is concluded that, because of the high concentrations present in vivo, carnosine and anserine could conceivably act as physiological antioxidants by scavenging .OH, but that they do not have a broad spectrum of antioxidant activity, and their ability to inhibit lipid peroxidation is not well established. It may be that they have a function other than antioxidant protection (e.g. buffering), but that they are safer to accumulate than histidine, which has a marked pro-oxidant action upon iron ion-dependent lipid peroxidation. The inability of homocarnosine to react with HOCl, interfere with the TBA test or affect lipid peroxidation systems in the same way as carnosine is surprising in view of the apparent structural similarity between these two molecules.

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