Purpose of review: Nitric oxide has emerged as a ubiquitous signaling molecule subserving diverse pathophysiologic processes, including cardiovascular homeostasis and its decompensation in atherogenesis. Recent insights into molecular mechanisms regulating nitric oxide generation and the rich diversity of mechanisms by which it propagates signals reveal the role of this simple gas as a principle mediator of systems integration of oxygen balance.
Recent findings: The molecular lexicon by which nitric oxide propagates signals encompasses the elements of posttranslational modification of proteins by redox-based nitrosylation of transition metal centers and free thiols. Spatial and temporal precision and specificity of signal initiation, amplification, and propagation are orchestrated by dynamic assembly of supramolecular complexes coupling nitric oxide production to upstream and downstream components in specific subcellular compartments. The concept of local paracrine signaling by nitric oxide over subcellular distances for short durations has expanded to include endocrine-like effects over anatomic spatial and temporal scales. From these insights emerges a role for nitric oxide in integrating system responses controlling oxygen supply and demand to defend cell integrity in the face of ischemic challenge. In this context, nitric oxide coordinates the respiratory cycle to acquire and deliver oxygen to target tissues by regulating hemoglobin function and vascular smooth muscle contractility and matches energy supply and demand by down-regulating energy-requiring functions while shifting metabolism to optimize energy production.
Summary: Insights into mechanisms regulating nitric oxide production and signaling and their integration into responses mediating homeostasis place into specific relief the role of those processes in pathophysiology. Indeed, endothelial dysfunction associated with altered production of nitric oxide regulating tissue integrity contributes to the pathogenesis underlying atherogenesis. Moreover, this central role in pathophysiology identifies nitric oxide signaling as a key target for novel therapeutic interventions to minimize irreversible tissue damage associated with ischemic cardiovascular disease.