Free radicals occur in biological systems. A free radical is an atom or small molecule with unpaired electrons. These unpaired electrons make the atom or molecule highly reactive and unstable. Free radicals are produced constantly via metabolic processes. They are also released by immune cells. Immune cells can undergo oxidative bursts (also called respiratory bursts) to help fight pathogens. Oxidative bursts can help degrade pathogens that were phagocytosed by immune cells. Free radicals have an important role in immune system function.
However, free radicals also have detrimental effects on surrounding cells. When LDL is co-localized with cells or tissues that are releasing free radicals (such as in an inflamed vessel wall) the free radicals can chemically modify the phospholipids and other components of the lipoprotein. The LDL then becomes oxidized and the modification makes the LDL more atherogenic.