Nitric oxide may change basic understanding of cellular machinery

Durham, N.C. -- Standard methods used to discover the role of proteins in the cell do not take into account a key player in that function: nitric oxide, according to new research by Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke Medical Center researchers. The researchers have found that the molecule, naturally present throughout the human body, plays a major role in assembling protein networks that direct fundamental cellular activities, such as whether cells live or die.

Cell death, or apoptosis, is involved in a wide range of human ailments, including heart failure, Alzheimer's disease and asthma, said Jonathan Stamler, M.D., HHMI investigator at Duke and senior author of the study. Therefore, the finding may lead to new insights into the underlying causes of disease, he added.

The Duke-based team, including HHMI associate and lead author Akio Matsumoto, M.D., report their findings in the August 1, 2003, issue of Science.

New tools developed by the team -- which will allow researchers to observe proteins in action under conditions that include natural levels of nitric oxide (NO) -- could change scientists' view of how proteins work together to drive essential cellular reactions. The scientists' results are particularly relevant today as researchers begin to decipher the function of the "proteome" -- the thousands of proteins encoded by the human genome, which is the body's complete set of genetic instructions, Stamler said.

"Understanding dynamic interactions among proteins is critical to understanding biological function," Stamler said. "When proteins come into contact with one another too much or too little, the result can be disease. The picture we have now of how life reactions occur is just the tip of the iceberg." The new method, he added, will enable scientists to fill in more of the missing biological details, yielding new insights into how healthy cells function and new opportunities for the treatment of disease.


Contact: Kendall Morgan
Duke University Medical Center

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