Sources of carbon monoxide (CO) in biological systems and applications of CO detection technologies

Semin Perinatol. 1994 Feb;18(1):2-10.


Carbon monoxide is produced from a variety of sources in biological systems. Heme oxygenase and heme oxygenase-like activity is the predominant source in mammals, and may be equally important in plants and lower animals. The enzyme appears to be ubiquitous, highly conserved throughout phylogeny, and tightly regulated during development. This and other evidence suggests that heme oxygenase has an important physiological role, of which CO production may be a part. Other minor sources of CO include the oxidation of organic molecules. This includes the following: (1) auto-oxidation of phenols, flavenoids, and halomethanes; (2) photo-oxidation of organic compounds; and (3) lipid peroxidation of membrane lipids. No longer thought of as a waste product only, recent studies suggest that in the central nervous system cellular CO production can influence cGMP levels through effects on soluble guanylyl cyclase activity. Cellular CO production may also be linked to cell-cell interactions, and may be important in the cell's response to environmental changes. Whether CO will have a place similar to nitric oxide in cellular metabolism is still unclear, but it is apparent that these metabolic relationships will become increasingly complex. Cellular heme oxygenase activity results in the equimolar production of CO and bilirubin for each molecule of heme degraded. The CO thus formed diffuses into the blood, is carried via hemoglobin, and is excreted in the lungs. Therefore, CO production can be assessed clinically by measuring the rate of total body CO excretion, blood COHb levels, and end-tidal CO concentration.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bilirubin / biosynthesis
  • Carbon Monoxide / analysis*
  • Carbon Monoxide / metabolism*
  • Heme / metabolism
  • Heme Oxygenase (Decyclizing) / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Plants / metabolism


  • Heme
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Heme Oxygenase (Decyclizing)
  • Bilirubin