Posts Tagged ‘signalling’

Author: Aviral Vatsa PhD MBBS

This is the first post in a series of posts on mechanosensation and mechanotransduction and their role in physiology and disease.

Future posts in this category will focus on various aspects of role of mechanosensation and mechanotransduction in human physiology. These aspects will include among others: gene modulation, cellular mechanosensation, tissue regeneration, stem cell differentiation, cancer, disease models, nanomodulation, material science and therapeutics etc.

Based on Zhang et al [1]

Multicellular organisms such as humans require intricate orchestration of signals between cells to achieve global morphogenesis and organ function and thus maintain haemostasis. Three major ‘signalling modalities’ work in unison intracellularly and/or exrtacellularly to regulate harmonious functioning of the physiological milieu. These ‘modalities’ namely biochemical molecules, electrical currents or fields and mechanical forces (external or internal) cohesively direct the downstream regulation of physiological processes.

Traditionally most of the biological studies have focused on biochemical or electrical signalling events and relatively lesser resources have been dedicated towards exploring the role of mechanical forces in human health and disease. Despite early theories proposed by scientists such as Julius Wolff (Wolff’s law [2]) in the late nineteenth century “ that bone in a healthy person or animal will adapt to the loads under which it is placed”, relatively little has been studied about the role of external mechanical forces in maintaining haemostasis. However, recent important developments such as

  • identification of external force dependent regulation of signalling pathways [3]
  • determination of mechanosensing elements of cellular cytoskeleton [4]
  • manipulation of single molecules [5]

have reinstated the importance of external mechanical forces in physiology. As a result more recent investigations have demonstrated that external mechanical forces are major coordinators of development and haemostasis of organisms [6], [7] [8].

‘Mechanotransduction’ has been traditionally defined as the conversion of mechanical stimulus into chemical cues for the cells and thus altering downstream signalling e.g conformational changes in ion channels might lead to initiation of downstream signalling. However, with the accumulation of new knowledge pertaining to the effects of external mechanical loads on extracellular matrix or a cell or on subcellular structures, it is being widely accepted that mechanotransduction is more than merely a physical switch. Rather it entails the whole spectrum of cell-cell , cell-ECM, and intracellular interactions that can directly or indirectly modulate the functioning of cellular mechanisms involved in haemostasis. This modulation can function at various levels such as organism level, tissue level, cellular level and subcellular level.

Forces in cells and organisms

From biological point of view mechanical forces can be grouped into three categories

  • intracellular forces
  • intercellular forces
  • inter-tissue forces

In the eukaryotic cells these forces are generally generated by the the contractile cytoskeletal machinery of the cell that is comprised of

  • microfilaments : Diameter-6 nm; example- actin
  • intermediate filaments: Diameter-10 nm; example- vimentin, keratin
  • microtubules: Diameter-23 nm; example- alpha and beta tubulin


Actin labeling in single Osteocyte in situ in mouse bone. Source: Aviral Vatsa

Actin labeling in single Osteocyte in situ in mouse bone. Source: Aviral Vatsa

Actin (cytoskeleton) staining of single osteocyte in situ in mouse calvaria (source: Aviral Vatsa)

There are a range of forces generated in the biological milieu (adopted from Mammoto et al [8]): 

  • Hydrostatic pressure: mechanical force applied by fluids or gases (e.g. blood or air) that perfuse or infuse living organs (e.g. blood vessels or lung).
  • Shear stress: frictional force of fluid flow on the surface of cells. The shear stress generated by the heart pumping blood through the systemic circulation has a key role in the determination of the cell fate of cardiomyocytes, endothelial cells and hematopoietic cells.
  • Compressive force: pushing force that shortens the material in the direction of the applied force. Tensional force: pulling force that lengthens materials in the direction of the applied force.
  • Cell traction force: is exerted on the adhesion to the ECM and other cells as a result of the shortening of the contractile cytoskeletal actomyosin filaments, which transmit tensional forces across cell surface adhesion receptors (e.g. integrins, cadherins).
  • Cell prestress: stabilizing isometric tension in the cell that is generated by the establishment of a mechanical force balance within the cytoskeleton through a tensegrity mechanism. Pulling forces generated within contractile microfilaments are resisted by external tethers of the cell (e.g. to the ECM or neighboring cells) and by internal load-bearing structures that resist compression (e.g. microtubules, filipodia). Prestress controls signal transduction and regulates cell fate.

It is the interplay of these forces generated by the cellular cytoskeleton and the ECM that regulate physiological functions. Disruption in mechanotransduction has been implicated in a variety of diseases such as hypertension, muscular dystrophies, cardiomyopathies, loss of hearing, cancer progression and metastasis. Ongoing attempts at unravelling the finer details of mechanosensation hold promising potential for new therapeutic approaches.



[1] H. Zhang and M. Labouesse, “Signalling through mechanical inputs – a coordinated process,” Journal of Cell Science, vol. 125, no. 17, pp. 4172–4172, Oct. 2012.

[2] R. A. Brand, “Biographical Sketch: Julius Wolff, 1836–1902,” Clin Orthop Relat Res, vol. 468, no. 4, pp. 1047–1049, Apr. 2010.

[3] A. J. Hudspeth, “The cellular basis of hearing: the biophysics of hair cells,” Science, vol. 230, no. 4727, pp. 745–752, Nov. 1985.

[4] N. Wang, J. P. Butler, and D. E. Ingber, “Mechanotransduction across the cell surface and through the cytoskeleton,” Science, vol. 260, no. 5111, pp. 1124–1127, May 1993.

[5] J. T. Finer, R. M. Simmons, and J. A. Spudich, “Single myosin molecule mechanics: piconewton forces and nanometre steps,” , Published online: 10 March 1994; | doi:10.1038/368113a0, vol. 368, no. 6467, pp. 113–119, Mar. 1994.

[6] P. A. Janmey and R. T. Miller, “Mechanisms of mechanical signaling in development and disease,” J Cell Sci, vol. 124, no. 1, pp. 9–18, Jan. 2011.

[7] R. Keller, L. A. Davidson, and D. R. Shook, “How we are shaped: The biomechanics of gastrulation,” Differentiation, vol. 71, no. 3, pp. 171–205, Apr. 2003.

[8] T. Mammoto and D. E. Ingber, “Mechanical control of tissue and organ development,” Development, vol. 137, no. 9, pp. 1407–1420, May 2010.


Read Full Post »

Curated/reported by : Aviral Vatsa PhD, MBBS

Based on : S Moncada et al

It was in 1980 that Furchgott & Zawadzki first described endothelium- dependent relaxation of the blood vessels by acetylcholine. Further studies in 1984 revealed that other factors such as bradykinin, histamine and 5-hydroxytryptamine release endothelium derived relaxing factor (EDRF), which can modulate vessel tone. EDRF was shown to stimulate soluble guanylate cyclase and was inhibited by haemoglobin. In 1986 it was demonstrated that superoxide (O2) anions mediated EDRF inactivation and that the inhibitors of EDRF generated superoxide (O2) anions in solution as a mean to inhibit EDRF. It was later established that all compounds that inhibit EDRF have one property in common, redox activity, which accounted for their inhibitory action on EDRF. One exception was haemoglobin, which inactivates EDRF by binding to it. In 1987 Furchgott proposed that EDRF might be nitric oxide (NO) based on a study of the transient relaxations of endothelium-denuded rings of rabbit aorta to ‘acidified’ inorganic nitrite (NO) solutions and the observations that superoxide dismutase (SOD, which removes O2) protected EDRF. Till then NO was not known to be produced in mammalian cells. In 1988 Palmer et al could detect NO production both biologically and chemically by chemiluminescence. The following year in 1989 the enzyme responsible for NO production, NO synthase, was discovered and L-arginine:NO pathway was proposed.

Roles of L-arginine:NO pathway

By 1987 it was proposed that NO is generated in tissues other than endothelium. Hibbs et al and Marletta et al proposed that NO was generated by macrophages. Moreover release of EDRF was demonstrated in cerebellar cells following activation with N-methyl-D- aspartate (NMDA ). Both noradrenergic and cholinergic responses are ‘controlled’ by the nitrergic system so that the release of NO (e.g., during electrical field stimulation) counteracts and dominates the response to the noradrenergic or cholinergic stimulus (Cellek & Moncada, 1997). Mechanism of penile erection was unveiled by the studies on nitrergic neurotransmission that led to therapeutic intervention. Selective damage of nitrergic nerves in disease states was proposed as a potent mechanism of pathophysiology. Broadly three areas of research based on three isoforms of NOS came into being;

  • cardiovascular
  • nervous
  • immunology

Identification of NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NMMA) as an inhibitor of the synthesis of NO lay the basis of future research into investigating the role of NO in biological systems. In 1989 it was demonstrated that intravenous infusion of L-NMMA resulted in increase in blood pressure that was reversible by infusing L-arginine. NO was thus implicated in constantly maintaining blood vessel tone. eNOS knockout studies showed a hypertensive phenotypes in the animal models and over expression of eNOS led to lowering of the blood pressure. Furthermore, eNOS activation was attributed to phosphorylation of a specific tyrosine residue in the enzyme.

NO and Mitochondria 


NO reacts with some of the complexes of the respiratory chain, and inhibits mitochondrial respiration – this is a well accepted notion. Initially it was believed that the target for NO was soluble guanylate cyclase, which in vasculature would lead to elevation of cGMP that eventually results in NO mediated vasodilatation and platelet aggregation inhibition. In 1994, another potential target, cytochrome c oxidase, for inhibitory effects of NO was discovered. This was a reversible effect, in competition with oxygen concentrations. Increases in NO production were also shown to inhibit cellular respiration irreversibly by selectively inhibiting complex I . Hence in 2002 it was proposed that this might be a mechanism through which cell pathology was initiated in certain conditions. Furthermore, NO was proposed to be implicated in the activation of the grp78-dependent stress response , via modulating calcium-related interaction between mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum . This host defence mechanism might also have role in vasculature. Further evidence was provided in 2003 to link the role of NO in mitochondrogenesis and thus indicating that NO might be involved in the regulation of the balance between glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation in cells.

NO and Pathophysiology

Lack of NO: By 2000, NO was established as a haemostatic regulator in the vasculature. Its absence was implicated in pathological states such as hypertension and vasospasm. These pathophysiological states share a common beginning of endothelial dysfunction, which has low NO production as one of its characterstic features. This dysfunction has been observed prior to the appearance of cardiovascular disease in predisposed subjects with family history of essential hypertension and atherosclerosis. The most likely mechanism for endothelial dysfunction is that of a reduced bioavailability of NO . The mechanism of this aspect is discussed elsewhere on this site. Protection against reduction of NO bio-availability in the vasculature is a vital therapeutic target and is extensively explored. This can be achieved by the use of antioxidants and/or augmentation of eNOS expression. In 2003 statins were shown to increase the production of endothelial NO in endothelial cell cultures and in animals by the reduction of oxidative stress or by increasing the coupling of the eNOS. It was way back in 1994 that oestrogen was shown to increase both the activity and expression of eNOS. In addition, more recently in 2003, oestrogen was shown to reduce the breakdown of available NO.

Excess of NO: In 2000 it was shown that NO produced from iNOS in vasculature is involved in extensive vasodilatation in septic shock. Later it was demonstrated that inhibition of mitochondrial respiration is an important component of the NO-induced tissue damage. This inhibition of respiration, which is initially NO-dependent and reversible, becomes persistent with time as a result of oxidative stress . Such metabolic hypoxic states where in tissues cannot utilise available oxygen due to NO, could also contribute to other inflammatory and degenerative conditions. An obvious therapeutic target for reducing NO production in such conditions would be L-NMMA. L-NMM was tested in a clinical trial for septic shock in 2004. The results were however disappointing probably due to the blanket reduction in NO production from other NOS enzymes there by having deleterious effects on the treatment group. More specific inhibitors for NOS forms are being investigated for in different disease states.

In conclusion, the L-arginine: NO pathway has had a major impact in many areas of research, specially vascular biology. A lot has been understood about this pathway and its interactions, therapeutic targets are being aggressively investigated, but further investigations are required to delineate further the role of NO in human health and disease.

Further Reading


Nitric Oxide and Platelet Aggregation

Inhaled NO in Pulmonary Artery Hypertension and Right Sided Heart Failure

Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) and the Role of agent alternatives in endothelial Nitric Oxide Synthase (eNOS) Activation and Nitric Oxide Production

Nitric Oxide in bone metabolism

Nitric oxide and signalling pathways

Rationale of NO use in hypertension and heart failure

Interaction of Nitric Oxide and Prostacyclin in Vascular Endothelium

Nitric Oxide has a ubiquitous role in the regulation of glycolysis -with a concomitant influence on mitochondrial function

Read Full Post »

Authour/Curator: Aviral Vatsa PhD MBBS

This post is in continuation with posts on basics of NO metabolism and its effect on physiology. Other topics are covered under the following posts.

  1. Nitric Oxide and Platelet Aggregation

  2. Inhaled NO in Pulmonary Artery Hypertension and Right Sided Heart Failure

  3. Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) and the Role of agent alternatives in endothelial Nitric Oxide Synthase (eNOS) Activation and Nitric Oxide Production

  4. Nitric Oxide in bone metabolism

  5. Nitric oxide and signalling pathways

  6. Rationale of NO use in hypertension and heart failure

Nitric oxide plays wide variety of roles in cardiovascular system and acts as a central point for signal transduction pathway in endothelium. NO modulates vascular tone, fibrinolysis, blood pressure and proliferation of vascular smooth muscles. In cardiovascular system disruption of NO pathways or alterations in NO production can result in preponderance to hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, atherosclerosis and thrombosis. The three enzyme isoforms of NO synthase family are responsible for generating NO in different tissues under various circumstances. The endothelial NOS (eNOS) is expressed in endothelial cells, the inducible NOS (iNOS) is expressed in macrophages and neuronal NOS (nNOS) is expressed in certain neurons and skeletal muscle. Although the basic mechanism of action for NO production is the same for all three NOS isoforms, yet deficiencies of each one of them manifest differently or with varying severity in the body e.g. eNOS deficiency might lead to hypertension, more severe form of vascular injury to cerebral ischaemia and more severe form of atherosclerosis induced by hypercholesterolemic diet whereas nNOS deficiency might show less severe form of vascular injury to cerebral ischaemia and absence of iNOS might lead to reduced hypotension in septic shock.

Reduction in NO production is implicated as one of the initial factors in initiating endothelial dysfunction. This reduction could be due to

  • reduction in eNOS production

  • reduction in eNOS enzymatic activity

  • reduced bioavailability of NO

eNOS production is increased by physiological sheer stress on endothelial cells resulting from normal flow of blood along the arterial walls. Alterations in fluid sheer stress patterns e.g due to arterial constriction has been shown to have detrimental effect on eNOS production in endothelial cells. eNOS production is decreased by LDL, angiotensin II and TNF alpha. eNOS is tightly coupled enzyme and its activity can be significantly reduced by reduction in availability of cofactors and substrates, and by competitive inhibitors such as ADMA. Furthermore, uncoupling of eNOS can result in increased production of reactive species of both oxygen (superoxide) and nitrogen (peroxinitrite), which inturn can further reduce eNOS bioavailability. A range of therapeutic targets aim at increasing bioavailability of eNOS and they are summarised here.

Increased production of ROS and peroxinitrite is associated with endothelial dysfunction. Coronary heart disease risk factors may increase NOS mediated ROS formation and peroxinitrite formation. Such risk factors are associated with decreased NO production levels in the vasculature. However, recent data suggests that reduction in bioavailable NO levels in the arteries could be due to increased local oxidative stress rather than reduction in basal NO production.

Oxidation dependent mechanisms have been implicated in endothelial dysfunction. Oxidized low density lipo-proteins (oxLDL) play an important role in early endothelial dysfunction and hence early atherosclerosis (see figure below)

oxLDL can uncouple eNOS and reduced uptake of L-ariginine that can lead to production of superoxide radical oxygen. OxLDL can interfere with NO production and lead to altered NO signalling in the vascular endothelium. In addition, different arteries can be affected differently by these physiological changes e.g. oxLDL affects carotid artery and not the basilar artery thereby implying that intracranial arteries might be protected from endothelium-mediated oxidative injury and hence atherosclerosis. And finally NO can modulate oxidation mediated apoptotic signals in the vessel wall. Hence atherosclerosis can result from the derangement of fine imbalance between NO bioavailability and local oxidative stress.

Therapeutic targets:

There are various pathways being targeted to modulate the bioavailability of eNOS and NO such as

  1. Recoupling of eNOS to cofactors and substrates

  2. Modulation of eNOS activity by genomic and non genomic mechanisms e.g. by statins, ACE inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers, calcium channel blockers , KLF2 modulators

  3. The suppression of inflammatory signalling pathways by PPAR-α activation

  4. Modulation of caeviolin mediated endocytosis and thus dissociation of eNOS from caevolin

The above list is not exhaustive, but this post here summarises recent developments in therapeutic targets in NO /eNOS regulation.

Based on:

Nitric Oxide and Pathogenic Mechanisms Involved in the Development of Vascular Diseases

Claudio Napoli and Louis J. Ignarro

Arch Pharm Res Vol 32, No 8, 1103-1108, 2009 , DOI 10.1007/s12272-009-1801-1 


Read Full Post »

Curator/ Author: Aviral Vatsa, PhD, MBBS

In continuation with the previous posts that dealt with short history and chemistry of nitric oxide (NO), here I will try to highlight the pathways involved in NO chemical signalling.

NO is a very small molecule, with a short half life (<5 sec). It diffuses rapidly to its surroundings and is metabolised to nitrites and nitrates. It can travel short distances, a few micrometers, before it is oxidised. Although it was previously believed that NO can only exert its effect for a very short time as other nitrogen oxides were believed to be biologically inert. Recent data suggests that other NO containing compounds such as S- or N-nitrosoproteins and iron-nitrosyl complexes can be reduced back to produce NO. These NO containing compounds can serve as storage and can reach distant tissues via blood circulation, remote from their place of origin. Hence NO can have both paracrine and ‘endocrine’ effects.

Intracellularly the oxidants present in the cytosol determine the amount of bioacitivity that NO performs. NO can travel roughly 100 microns from NOS enzymes where it is produced. NOS enzymes on the other hand are localised to specific sub-cellular areas, which have relevant proteins in the vicinity as targets for signalling.

NO signalling occurs primarily via three mechanisms (according to Martínez-Ruiz et al):

  1. Classical: This occurs via soluble guanylyl cyclase (sGC). Once NO is produced by NOS it diffuses to sGC intracellularly or even in other cells. SGC is highly sensitive for NO, even nanomolar amounts of NO activates sGC, thus making it a potent target for NO in signalling pathways. sGC in turn increases the conversion of GTP to cGMP. cGMP further mediates the regulation of contractile proteins and gene expression pathways via cGMP-activated protein kinases (PKGs). cGMPs cause confirmational changes in PKGs. Signalling by cGMP is terminated by the action of phosphodiestrases (PDEs). PDEs have become major therapeutic targets in the upcoming exciting research projects.
  2. Less classical: Within the mitochondria NO can compete with O2 and inhibit cytochrome c oxidase (CcO) enzyme. This is a reversible inhibition that depends on O2and NO concentrations and can occur at physiological levels of NO. Various studies have demonstrated that endogenously generated NO can inhibit respiration or that NOS inhibitors can increase respiration at cellular, tissue or whole animal level. Although the exact mechanism of CcO inhibition of NO is still debated, NO-CcO interaction is considered important signalling step in a variety of functions such as inhibition of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation, apoptosis and reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation. Interestingly, at higher concentration (~1nM) NO can cause irreversible inhibition of cellular oxidation by reversible and/or irreversible damage to the mitochondrial iron–sulfur centers,In addition to the above mentioned pathways, NO (along with AMP, ROS and O2), can also activate AMP- activated protein kinase (AMPK), an enzyme that plays a central role in regulating intracellular energy metabolism. NO can also regulate hypoxia inducible factor (HIF), an O2-dependent transcription factor that plays a key role in cell adaptation to hypoxia .
  3. Non- classical: S-nitrosylation or S-nitrosation is the covalent insertion of NO into thiol groups such as of cysteine residues of proteins. It is precise, reversible, and spatiotemporally restricted post translational modification. This chemical activity is dependent upon the reactivity between nitrosylating agent (a small molecule) and the target (protein residue). It might appear that this generic interaction results in non-specific, wide spread chemical activity with various proteins. However, three factors might determine the regulation of specificity of s-nitrosylation for signalling purposes:
  • Subcellular compartmentalisation: high concentrations of nitrosylating agents are required in the vicinity of target residues, thus making it a specific activity.
  • Site specificity: certain cysteine residues are more reactive in specific protein microenvironments than others, thus favouring their modification. As a result under physiological conditions only a specific number of cysteine residues would be modified, but under higher NO levels even the slow reacting ones would be modified. Increased impetus in research in this area to determine protein specificity to s-nitrosylation provides huge potential in discovering new therapeutic targets.
  • Denitrosylation: different rates of denitrosylation result in s-nitrosylation specificity.

Other modifications in non classical NO mechanisms include S-glutathionylation and tyrosine nitration

Peroxynitrite: It is one of the important reactive nitrogen species that has immense biological relevance. NO reacts with superoxide to form peroxynitrite. Production of peroxynitrite depletes the bioactivty of NO in physiological systems. Peroxynitrite can diffuse through membranes and react with cellular components such as mitochondrial proteins, DNA, lipids, thiols, and amino acid residues. Peroxynitrite can modify proteins such as haemoglobin, myoglobin and cytochrome c. it can alter calcium homeostasis and promote mitochondrial signalling of cell death. However, NO itself in low concentrations have protective action on mitochondrial signalling of cell death.

More details about various aspects of NO signalling can be obtained from the following references.

The post is based on the following Sources:

  1. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S089158491100236Xhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2011.04.010
  2. http://content.karger.com/produktedb/produkte.asp?doi=338150Cardiology 2012;122:55-68 (DOI: 10.1159/000338150)
  3. http://content.onlinejacc.org/article.aspx?articleid=1137266 J Am Coll Cardiol. 2006;47(3):580-581. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2005.11.016
  4. http://goo.gl/y6oY3


In addition, other aspects of NO involvement in biological systems in humans are covered in the following posts on this site:

  1. Nitric Oxide and Platelet Aggregation
  2. Inhaled NO in Pulmonary Artery Hypertension and Right Sided Heart Failure
  3. Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) and the Role of agent alternatives in endothelial Nitric Oxide Synthase (eNOS) Activation and Nitric Oxide Production
  4. Nitric Oxide in bone metabolism

Read Full Post »

Reporter: Aviral Vatsa MBBS PHD


Wnt signaling is essential for osteogenesis and also functions as an adipogenic switch, but it is not known if interrupting wnt signaling via knockout of β‐catenin from osteoblasts would cause bone marrow adiposity. In this study the authors determined whether postnatal deletion of β‐catenin in preosteoblasts, through conditional cre expression driven by the osterix promoter, causes bone marrow adiposity. Postnatal disruption of β‐catenin in the preosteoblasts led to extensive bone marrow adiposity and low bone mass in adult mice. In cultured bone marrow‐derived cells isolated from the knockout mice, adipogenic differentiation was dramatically increased, whereas osteogenic differentiation was significantly decreased. As myoblasts, in the absence of wnt/β‐catenin signaling, can be reprogrammed into the adipocyte lineage, we sought to determine whether the increased adipogenesis we observed partly resulted from a cell‐fate shift of preosteoblasts that had to express osterix, (lineage‐committed early osteoblasts), from the osteoblastic to the adipocyte lineage. Using lineage tracing both in vivo and in vitro we demonstrated that the loss of β‐catenin from preosteoblasts caused a cell‐fate shift of these cells from osteoblasts to adipocytes, a shift that may at least partly contribute to the bone marrow adiposity and low bone mass in the knockout mice. These novel findings indicate that wnt/β‐catenin signaling exerts control over the fate of lineage‐committed early osteoblasts, with respect to their differentiation into osteoblastic vs. adipocytic populations in bone, and thus offers potential insight into the origin of bone marrow adiposity. © 2012 American Society for Bone and Mineral Research.

Read Full Post »

Author/Curator: Aviral Vatsa PhD, MBBS

Nitric oxide (NO) is of extreme biological interest due to its wide range of physiological functions in almost all the human systems. For long it has been of vital interest to chemists, environmental scientists, metallurgists and other domains. It is only recently that the world of biology has discovered the ubiquitous presence of this small molecule in human body and the scientific exploration of its effects has grown ever since. It was only in 1980s that three different groups demonstrated that NO is indeed produced by mammalian cells and that NO has specific biological roles in the human body. These studies highlighted the role of NO in cardiovascular, nervous and immune systems. In cardiovascular system NO was shown to cause relaxation of vascular smooth muscle cells causing vasodilatation, in nervous system NO acts as a signalling molecule and in immune system it is used against pathogens by the phagocytosis cells. These pioneering studies opened the path of investigation of role of NO in biology. In 1998, three scientists, Robert F Furchgott, Louis J Ignarro, and Ferid Murad, were awarded Nobel Prize for their discoveries concerning ‘nitric oxide as a signalling molecule’.

Since then hundreds and thousands of publications have appeared in the scientific literature. These studies have attributed a wide range of biological functions to NO. A few important examples are:

  • toxic free radical causing injury to proteins, lipids and DNA
  • mediator of synaptic plasticity
  • intercellular neuronal signalling molecule
  • pro and anti inflammatory molecule
  • role in cell degeneration and ischaemia-reperfusion injury
  • role in atherosclerosis and inherited motor disorders
  • role in bone remodelling

The above list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives an idea about the ubiquitous involvement of NO in human systems.

Since NO has been implicated in various disease states, it has also been a prime target to achieve therapeutic benefits. Efforts are ongoing to investigate the therapeutic potential of NO in cardiovascular diseases, sepsis and shock, respiratory ailments, neuronal disease and bone conditions…just to name a few.

Although a lot of progress has happened in our understanding of this small molecule since its discovery, but still there are many challenges that the researchers face today while investigating NO. These are primarily because NO is metabolised very quickly (<5 sec) and it can difuse freely across cellular membranes owing to its chemical structure. This is the precise reason why it can act as a potent signaling molecule across systems in the first place. New techniques are appearing to delineate the role of NO at sub-cellular level and have promising potential to aid NO research in the future.

In the future posts on this topic I will strive to cover different aspects of NO physiology and its role in various disease conditions, techniques for NO detection, signaling mechanism etc.


1. The nature of endothelium-derived vascular relaxant factor

Nature 308, 645 – 647 (12 April 1984); doi:10.1038/308645a0

T. M. Griffith, D. H. Edwards, M. J. Lewis, A. C. Newby & A. H. Henderson

2. Nitric oxide: physiology, pathophysiology, and pharmacology.

Pharmacological Rev June 1991 43:109-142

S Moncada, R M Palmer, and E A Higgs

3. Introduction to EDRF research.

J Cardiovasc Pharmacol.1993;22 Suppl 7:S1-2.

Furchgott RF

4. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1998/illpres/

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: