Aldehydes are electrophilic compounds to which humans are pervasively exposed. Despite a significant health risk due to exposure, the mechanisms of aldehyde toxicity are poorly understood. This ambiguity is likely due to the structural diversity of aldehyde derivatives and corresponding differences in chemical reactions and biological targets. To gain mechanistic insight, we have used parameters based on the hard and soft, acids and bases (HSAB) theory to profile the different aldehyde subclasses with respect to electronic character (softness, hardness), electrophilic reactivity (electrophilic index), and biological nucleophilic targets. Our analyses indicate that short chain aldehydes and longer chain saturated alkanals are hard electrophiles that cause toxicity by forming adducts with hard biological nucleophiles, e.g., primary nitrogen groups on lysine residues. In contrast, α,β-unsaturated carbonyl derivatives, alkenals, and the α-oxoaldehydes are soft electrophiles that preferentially react with soft nucleophilic thiolate groups on cysteine residues. The aldehydes can therefore be grouped into subclasses according to common electronic characteristics (softness/hardness) and molecular mechanisms of toxicity. As we will discuss, the toxic potencies of these subgroups are generally related to corresponding electrophilicities. For some aldehydes, however, predictions of toxicity based on electrophilicity are less accurate due to inherent physicochemical variables that limit target accessibility, e.g., steric hindrance and solubility. The unsaturated aldehydes are also members of the conjugated type-2 alkene chemical class that includes α,β-unsaturated amide, ketone, and ester derivatives. Type-2 alkenes are electrophiles of varying softness and electrophilicity that share a common mechanism of toxicity. Therefore, exposure to an environmental mixture of unsaturated carbonyl derivatives could cause "type-2 alkene toxicity" through additive interactions. Finally, we propose that environmentally derived aldehydes can accelerate diseases by interacting with endogenous aldehydes generated during oxidative stress. This review provides a basis for understanding aldehyde mechanisms and environmental toxicity through the context of electronic structure, electrophilicity, and nucleophile target selectivity.
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