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Nitric oxide in Body

Nitric oxide is a colourless gas. It is also known as nitrogen monoxide and has the chemical formula NO.

Nitric oxide molecule is synthesized from molecular nitrogen and oxygen at very high temperatures of >10000C. This occurs naturally in the environment during lightning.

In the laboratory nitric oxide can be produced by reduction of nitric acid or nitrous acid. Nitric oxide has a melting point of -163.6°C (109.6 K) and a boiling point of -151.7°C (121.4 K).

Nitric oxide is called a free radical because it contains single unpaired electrons in its molecule. Hence it is reactive, and has a half-life of only a few seconds.

It is considered as an air pollutant responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer. Nitric oxide reacts with oxygen (O2) and ozone (O3) to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a brown fume and an environmental pollutant. Nitric oxide generated from automobile engines, industries and power plants is the cause of acid rain and smog.

However, this toxic environmental pollutant has also been shown to be a very important signalling molecule in the human body.

What is the role of nitric oxide in the body?

Some of the known functions of nitric oxide are listed in the table below.

Cardiovascular system
  • Controls vascular tone.
  • Relaxes vascular smooth muscles and reduces blood pressure.
  • Dilates vessels and relieves the pain of angina.
  • Inhibits the aggregation of platelets within the vessels and prevents thrombotic events.
Nervous system
  • Acts as a neurotransmitter, including in the autonomic nervous system.
  • Increases cerebral blood flow and oxygenation to the brain.
  • One of the important mediators in penile erection during sexual arousal.
Lungs
  • Dilates pulmonary vessels.
  • Beneficial in Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Pulmonary hypertension and Chronic Obstructive Airway Disease.
  • Produced in abnormal amounts in inflammatory lung conditions.
  • Concentration of NO in exhaled air can be taken as a marker of airway inflammation.
Gastrointestinal tract
  • Regulates the relaxation of smooth muscles.
  • Controls peristalsis and the function of sphincters.
Renal system
  • Due to its vasodilatory effect, increases blood flow to the kidney.
  • Increases the glomerular filtration rate and the production of urine.
Immune system
  • Modulates T cell-mediated immune response.

What is the role of nitric oxide in the skin?

Nitric oxide controls cutaneous microcirculation.

  • It modulates the vasodilator response of the skin to local warming and ultraviolet-B (UVB).
  • It mediates cutaneous oedema and inflammation.
  • It is involved in skin pigmentation through ultraviolet induced melanogenesis.
  • It may contribute to impaired barrier function.
  • It promotes wound healing by cellular proliferation and angiogenesis.

Nitric oxide has shown antimicrobial properties against micro-organisms.

  • Bacteria – Staphylococcus aureus
  • Dermatophytes – Trichophyton rubrum, Trichophyton mentagrophytes
  • Yeasts – Candida albicans
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