Therapeutic photobiomodulation: nitric oxide and a novel function of mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase

Discov Med. 2011 Feb;11(57):154-9.


Currently, light therapies are widely used in both human and veterinarian medicine. The application of light to clinical therapeutics includes: photodynamic therapy, used to kill cancer cells; UVA therapies, used to treat a variety of skin diseases; and photobiomodulation, used to promote cell growth and recovery from injury. Photobiomodu-lation uses light emitting diodes (LEDs) or low energy lasers, which emit light in the visible red to near infrared range. Light in this range penetrates tissue reasonably well, lacks the carcinogenic/mutagenic properties of UV light, and acts on an endogenous photoreceptor which likely acts to initiate light-altered signaling pathways. Although early studies identified mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase as an endogenous photoreceptor for photobiomodulation, the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying photobiomodulation have not been clear. Three recent findings provide important new insight. First, nitric oxide has been implicated. Second, cytochrome c oxidase, an enzyme known to reduce oxygen to water at the end of the mitochondrial respiratory chain, has been shown to have a new enzymatic activity--the reduction of nitrite to nitric oxide. This nitrite reductase activity is elevated under hypoxic conditions but also occurs under normoxia. And third, low intensity light enhances nitric oxide synthesis by cytochrome c oxidase without altering its ability to reduce oxygen. From these findings, we propose that cytochrome c oxidase functions in photobiomodulation by producing nitric oxide, a signaling molecule which can then function in both intra- and extracellular signaling pathways. We also propose that the effectiveness of photobiomodulation is under the control of tissue oxygen and nitrite levels.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Availability
  • Electron Transport Complex IV / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / enzymology*
  • Nitric Oxide / metabolism*
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Phototherapy / methods*


  • Nitric Oxide
  • Electron Transport Complex IV
  • Oxygen