The term hydroxyl group is used to describe the functional group -OH when it is a substituent in an organic compound. Organic molecules containing a hydroxyl group are known as alcohols (the simplest of which have the formula CnH2n+1-OH).
The hydroxyl radical, ·OH, is the neutral form of the hydroxide ion. Hydroxyl radicals are highly reactive and consequently short lived, however they form an important part of radical chemistry. Most notably hydroxyl radicals are produced from the decomposition of hydro-peroxides (ROOH) or, in atmospheric chemistry, by the reaction of excited atomic oxygen with water. It is also an important radical formed in radiation chemistry, since it leads to the formation of hydrogen peroxide and oxygen, which can enhance corrosion and SCC in coolant systems subjected to radioactive environments.
The Hydroxyl radical is often referred to as the "detergent" of the troposphere because it reacts with many pollutants, often acting as the first step to their removal. The first reaction with many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is the removal of a hydrogen atom forming water and an alkyl radical (R·).
- OH + RH → H2O + R·
The alkly radical will typically react rapidly with oxygen forming a peroxy radical.
- R· + O2 → RO2
The fate of this radical in the troposphere is dependent on factors such as the amount of sunlight (light from the sun), pollution in the atmosphere and the nature of the alkyl radical which form it.
The hydroxyl radical has a very short in vivo half-life of approx. 10-9 s and a high reactivity. This makes it a very dangerous compound to the organism. Unlike superoxide, which can be detoxified by superoxide dismutase, the hydroxyl radical cannot be eliminated by an enzymatic reaction, as this would require its diffusion to the enzyme's active site. As diffusion is slower than the half-life of the molecule, it will react with any oxidizable compound in vicinity. It can damage virtually all types of macromolecules: carbohydrates, nucleic acids (mutations), lipids (lipid peroxidation) and amino acids (e.g. conversion of Phe to m-Tyr and o-Tyr)The only means to protect important cellular structures is the use of antioxidants such as glutathione and of effective repair systems.