As a result of the adaptation of life to an aerobic environment, nature has evolved a panoply of metalloproteins for oxidative metabolism and protection against reactive oxygen species. Despite the diverse structures and functions of these proteins, they share common mechanistic grounds. An open-shell transition metal like iron or copper is employed to interact with O2 and its derived intermediates such as hydrogen peroxide to afford a variety of metal-oxygen intermediates. These reactive intermediates, including metal-superoxo, -(hydro)peroxo, and high-valent metal-oxo species, are the basis for the various biological functions of O2-utilizing metalloproteins. Collectively, these processes are called oxygen activation. Much of our understanding of the reactivity of these reactive intermediates has come from the study of heme-containing proteins and related metalloporphyrin compounds. These studies not only have deepened our understanding of various functions of heme proteins, such as O2 storage and transport, degradation of reactive oxygen species, redox signaling, and biological oxygenation, etc., but also have driven the development of bioinorganic chemistry and biomimetic catalysis. In this review, we survey the range of O2 activation processes mediated by heme proteins and model compounds with a focus on recent progress in the characterization and reactivity of important iron-oxygen intermediates. Representative reactions initiated by these reactive intermediates as well as some context from prior decades will also be presented. We will discuss the fundamental mechanistic features of these transformations and delineate the underlying structural and electronic factors that contribute to the spectrum of reactivities that has been observed in nature as well as those that have been invented using these paradigms. Given the recent developments in biocatalysis for non-natural chemistries and the renaissance of radical chemistry in organic synthesis, we envision that new enzymatic and synthetic transformations will emerge based on the radical processes mediated by metalloproteins and their synthetic analogs.
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