Because of its unique chemical properties, nitric oxide (NO) is a pluripotent signalling and effector molecule that is implicated in a variety of biological roles. Although NO is known to function in host innate immunity against pathogen invasion, its possible roles in microbial symbioses with animal and plant hosts remain relatively less well defined. In this review, we discuss the mechanisms by which bacteria sense and/or detoxify NO. We then focus specifically on its roles in microbial symbioses of diverse eukaryotic hosts. Using the squid-vibrio light-organ symbiosis as a well-characterized example, we discuss the ways in which NO serves as a signal, antioxidant and specificity determinant in this model symbiosis. Because beneficial microbial associations are older and much more prevalent than pathogenic ones, it seems likely that the former may be evolutionary precursors of the latter. Thus, knowledge of the roles played by NO in mutualisms will provide insights into its function in disease interactions as well.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.