Purpose: To review the physiologic role of nitric oxide, an unusual messenger molecule that mediates blood vessel relaxation, neurotransmission, and pathogen suppression.
Data sources: A MEDLINE search of articles published from 1987 to 1993 that addressed nitric oxide and the enzyme that synthesizes it, nitric oxide synthase.
Study selection: Animal and human studies were selected from 3044 articles to analyze the clinical importance of nitric oxide. Descriptions of the structure and function of nitric oxide synthase were selected to show how nitric oxide acts as a biological messenger molecule.
Data extraction: Biochemical and physiologic studies were analyzed if the same results were found by three or more independent observers.
Data synthesis: Two major classes of nitric oxide synthase enzymes produce nitric oxide. The constitutive isoforms found in endothelial cells and neurons release small amounts of nitric oxide for brief periods to signal adjacent cells, whereas the inducible isoform found in macrophages releases large amounts of nitric oxide continuously to eliminate bacteria and parasites. By diffusing into adjacent cells and binding to enzymes that contain iron, nitric oxide plays many important physiologic roles. It regulates blood pressure, transmits signals between neurons, and suppresses pathogens. Excess amounts, however, can damage host cells, causing neurotoxicity during strokes and causing the hypotension associated with sepsis.
Conclusions: Nitric oxide is a simple molecule with many physiologic roles in the cardiovascular, neurologic, and immune systems. Although the general principles of nitric oxide synthesis are known, further research is necessary to determine what role it plays in causing disease.