The objective of this study was to elucidate the role and mechanism of nitric oxide (NO) synthase (NOS) in modulating the growth of the Caco-2 human colon carcinoma cell line. The two novel observations reported here are, first, that NG-hydroxy-L-arginine (NOHA) inhibits Caco-2 tumor cell proliferation, likely by inhibiting arginase activity, and, second, that NO causes cytostasis by mechanisms that might involve inhibition of ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) activity. Both arginase and ODC are enzymes involved in the conversion of arginine to polyamines required for cell proliferation. Cell growth was monitored by cell count, cell protein analysis, and DNA synthesis. NOHA (1-30 microM) and NO in the form of DETA/NO (1-30 microM) inhibited cell proliferation by 30-85%. The cytostatic effect of NOHA was prevented by addition of excess ornithine, putrescine, spermidine, or spermine to cell cultures, whereas the cytostatic effect of NO (DETA/NO) and alpha-difluoromethylornithine (ODC inhibitor) was unaffected by ornithine but was prevented by putrescine, spermidine, or spermine. The cytostatic effect of NOHA appeared to be independent of its conversion to NO, and the effect of NO appeared to be independent of cGMP. NOHA inhibited urea production by Caco-2 cells and inhibited arginase catalytic activity (85% at 3 microM), whereas NO (DEA/NO and SNAP) inhibited ODC activity (>/=60% at 30 microM) without affecting arginase activity. Coculture of Caco-2 cells with lipopolysaccharide/cytokine-activated rat aortic endothelial cells markedly slowed Caco-2 cell proliferation, and this was blocked by NOS inhibitors. These observations that NOHA and NO may inhibit sequential steps in the arginine-polyamine pathway suggest a novel biological role for NOS in the inhibition of cell proliferation of certain tumor cells and possibly other cell types.