The nitrate-nitrite-NO pathway is emerging as an alternative to the l-arginine/NO-synthase pathway for the generation of NO in mammals. Bioactivation of the stable nitrate anion involves initial reduction to nitrite by commensal bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Nitrite is then further metabolized in blood and tissues to form nitric oxide (NO) and other bioactive nitrogen oxides. In addition to nitrate reduction by bacteria, a functional mammalian nitrate reductase activity was recently explored. It was demonstrated that xanthine oxidoreductase (XOR) and possibly other enzymes can catalyze nitrate reduction under normoxic conditions in vivo. In the present study, we compared nitrate reduction in germ free (GF) and conventional mice. One aim was to see if the complete lack of bacterial nitrate reduction in the GF mice would be associated with an upregulation of mammalian nitrate reductase activity. Sodium nitrate (NaNO(3)) or placebo (NaCl) was injected intraperitoneally and blood and tissues were collected 1.5-2h later for measurements of nitrate and nitrite and in some cases analyses of protein expression. Tissue and plasma levels of nitrate increased to a similar extent in conventional and GF animals after nitrate administration. Plasma nitrite was 3-fold higher in GF mice receiving nitrate compared to placebo while this effect of nitrate was absent in the conventional mice. In GF mice pretreated with the xanthine oxidase inhibitor allopurinol the increase in nitrite was attenuated. The levels of nitrite in the liver and small intestine increased after the nitrate load in GF mice but not in the conventional mice. Anaerobic nitrate reduction to nitrite in intestinal tissue homogenates was also accelerated in GF mice. Studies of tissue protein levels revealed increased expression of XOR in the livers of GF animals. We conclude that XOR expression in tissues is enhanced in germ free mice and this may explain the apparently greater tissue nitrate reductase activity observed in these animals. Future studies will reveal if this represents a compensatory functional response to uphold nitrite homeostasis in the absence of commensal bacteria.
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