Nitric oxide (NO.) plays a central role in the Physioliology of the gastrointestinal tract and its response to critical illness. Potential sources of NO. in the gut include: intrinsic intestinal tissue (mast cells, epithelium, smooth muscle, neural plexus), resident and/or infiltrating leukocytes (neutrophils, monocytes), reduction of luminal gastric nitrate, and denitrification by commensal anaerobes. The brain and endothelial isoforms of nitric oxide synthase are expressed under resting conditions, whereas inflammatory stimuli are required for the induction of the inducible type. Under resting conditions, mucosal perfusion is regulated by NO. derived from the vascular endothelium of the mesenteric bed. During inflammation, excessive NO. production from the inducible synthase may contribute to mucosal hyperemia. Coordination of peristalsis and sphincteric action is mediated by the release of NO., which acts as the principal neurotransmitter of the nonadrenergic, noncholinergic enteric nervous system. Alterations in bowel motility, such as ileus, result from excessive concentrations of NO. generated during endotoxicosis and inflammatory bowel disease. The role of NO. in the regulation of salt and water secretion is poorly understood. Endotoxin-induced inhibition of gastric acid secretion appears to be mediated by the action of NO. on parietal cells. NO. may protect the gastrointestinal mucosa from a variety of stimuli (caustic ingestion, ischemia, ischemia/reperfusion injury, early endotoxic shock) by maintaining mucosal perfusion, inhibiting neutrophil adhesion to mesenteric endothelium, blocking platelet adhesion, and preventing mast cell activation. Excessive NO., however, may directly injure the mucosa. Barrier function of the intestinal mucosa is protected by NO. in the early stages of injury, when neutrophil adhesion, ischemia, and mast cell activation are relevant. Inhibition of NO. synthesis ameliorates barrier dysfunction during more advanced stages of inflammation, when activation of inducible NOS yields toxic concentrations of NO.. At high concentrations, NO. disrupts the actin cytoskeleton, inhibits ATP formation, dilates cellular tight junctions, and produces a hyperpermeable state. Selective inhibition of the inducible isoform of NOS and maintenance of the constitutive types may be therapeutic.