Bacterially catalysed N-nitrosation reactions and their relative importance in the human stomach

Carcinogenesis. 1987 Dec;8(12):1907-12. doi: 10.1093/carcin/8.12.1907.


Human exposure to endogenously formed N-nitroso compounds has frequently been suggested as a causative factor in carcinogenesis where this is related to chronic bacterial infection such as is seen in gastric achlorhydria. At least two distinct mechanisms of endogenous formation have been identified. The first, a direct chemical reaction between secondary amino compounds and nitrite, is strongly pH dependent and does not proceed rapidly at neutral pH even in the presence of chemical catalysts. The second depends on the direct bacterial catalysis of N-nitrosation. The data presented demonstrate that the bacterially mediated reaction is catalysed by bacterial enzyme systems and proceeds much more rapidly at neutral pH than the chemical reaction. This suggests a particular relevance to the in vivo situation where neutral pH, bacteria and elevated nitrite concentrations are found. Drawing on the kinetic information presented regarding the bacterially mediated nitrosation reaction, the known kinetics of the chemical reaction and the published values for the relevant substrate concentrations in both the colonised and the normal acid stomach the bacterial and chemical reactions have been compared. Using these criteria, and assuming the presence of bacteria with the appropriate metabolic activity, it may be predicted that N-nitroso compounds may be formed in the colonized stomach at much higher concentrations than in the normal acid stomach. The difference in yield may be by two to four orders of magnitude. Different bacterial species and different isolates of the same species show considerable variation in their abilities to catalyse N-nitrosation reactions. The most rapid catalysis is associated with those bacteria capable of reducing nitrate and nitrite by the process of denitrification. The most significant clinical corollary of these studies is that although bacterial catalysis of N-nitrosation has been demonstrated unequivocally, bacterial colonization of the stomach may not itself necessarily result in elevated endogenous N-nitroso compound exposure despite the elevated nitrite concentrations normally associated with such colonization. An increase in exposure to endogenously formed N-nitroso compounds would only be predicted in those individuals where a significant proportion of the colonizing bacteria expressed significant N-nitrosation activity. As a consequence the carcinogenic risk may be restricted to only a small proportion of colonized individuals depending on the prevalence of sustained infection by bacteria with significant N-nitrosation activity, particularly denitrifiers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Kinetics
  • Mathematics
  • Nitrosamines / metabolism
  • Nitroso Compounds / metabolism*
  • Piperazines / metabolism
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa / metabolism*
  • Stomach / microbiology*


  • Nitrosamines
  • Nitroso Compounds
  • Piperazines
  • N-nitrosomorpholine
  • 1-methylpiperazine