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The most primitive mechanism of cellular protection involves the expression of a polypeptide family named heat shock or stress proteins (hsps). Some of these hsps are present in unstressed cells and play an important role in the folding and translocation of polypeptides across membranes. Thus, they have been termed molecular chaperones. Hsps are expressed in response to an array of stresses, including hyperthermia, oxygen radicals, heavy metals, ethanol, and amino acid analogues. In addition, the heat shock response is induced during clinically relevant situations such as ischemia/reperfusion and circulatory and hemorrhagic shock. All of the above stresses have in common that they disturb the tertiary structure of proteins and have adverse effects on cellular metabolism. Pretreatment of cells with a mild stress, sufficient to induce the expression of hsps, results in protection to subsequent insults. This phenomenon has been coined “stress tolerance” and is apparently caused by the resolubilization of proteins that were denatured during the stress. In addition, cellular structures (microfilaments and centrosomes) and processes (transcription, splicing, and translation) are stabilized or repaired during a second stress in stress tolerant cells and organisms. There is a great body of evidence indicating a direct role of hsps in the stabilization of these events. The intrinsic capacity of hsps to protect cells has potential relevance as a natural mechanism of organ protection during harmful environmental conditions and operative procedures, and in the combat against pathogens.