nitric oxide or nitrogen monoxide, a colorless gas formed by the combustion of nitrogen and oxygen as given by the reaction: energy + N2 + O2 → 2NO; m.p. - 163.6°C; b.p. - 151.8°C. Nitric oxide readily combines with oxygen or air to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which can again be separated by ultraviolet light to produce nitric oxide and highly reactive oxygen atoms. These oxygen atoms combine with hydrocarbons producing noxious compounds that irritate the membranes of living organisms and destroy vegetation. Large amounts of nitric oxide are created by internal-combustion engines and manufacturing processes. Its quantity is greatly reduced by passing the oxide gas through a catalyst, thereby converting it back to its constituent nitrogen and oxygen gases.
In the environment, nitric oxide is a precursor of smog and acid rain. Nitric oxide in minute amounts serves as a source of energy in certain bacteria. In the body, it serves as a chemical messenger with a wide range of functions. It acts as a neurotransmitter and is necessary for penile erection. It affects blood pressure and is produced by macrophages in the immune system to help defend against infection and cancer. Despite its usefulness, nitric oxide can have a toxic effect on body cells and has been implicated in Huntington's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.