Nitric Oxide Found To Control Cells By Turning On Genes; Suggests New Role In Health And Disease

DURHAM, N.C. -- In a discovery that defines a new message system inside living cells, a team of researchers led by Duke University Medical Center reports finding that the chemical nitric oxide is a universal signaling molecule that can control basic life processes down to the level of the gene, the master plan of a cell.

The study findings, published in the Sept. 6 issue of the journal Cell, describes an entirely new cellular signaling mechanism -- the attachment of nitric oxide (NO) to a key portion of a protein called a thiol -- that can directly activate genes. The work was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers theorize that the process of flagging proteins with NO to activate them may prove to be as fundamental a biological process as flagging proteins with phosphate, a process now understood to be the primary on-off switch for thousands of proteins that control life processes.

Although the discovery was made in bacteria, the team believes that human cells also use NO molecules as a genetic signaling mechanism.

"It appears that life uses NO ubiquitously," said the study's leader, Dr. Jonathan Stamler, a cardiologist and pulmonologist. "Knowing that NO compounds have the ability to turn genes on is a phenomenal understanding that may lead to a new chapter of research and possible therapeutic uses."

The finding ties together the mountains of scientific studies in recent years linking NO with everything from blood vessel dilation to neurotransmission in the brain to intestinal contraction to penile erection. "Virtually everywhere scientists look in the body, they find NO has a role," Stamler said. "This study shows why. NO influences myriad body functions because NO is a universal signal."

The body keeps NO, which is toxic in excess, in balance by sensing how much NO is present and tu

Contact: Karyn Hede George, Renee Twombly
Duke University

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