Nitric oxide (NO) reversibly inhibits mitochondrial respiration by competing with oxygen at cytochrome oxidase. Concentrations of NO measured in a range of biological systems are similar to those shown to inhibit cytochrome oxidase and mitochondrial respiration. Inhibition of NO synthesis results in a stimulation of respiration in a number of systems. It is proposed that NO exerts some of its main physiological and pathological effects on cell functions by inhibiting cytochrome oxidase. Further NO may be a physiological regulator of the affinity of mitochondrial respiration for oxygen, enabling mitochondria to act as sensors of oxygen over the physiological range.