Previously, we reported that nitric oxide (NO) provides significant protection to mammalian cells from the cytotoxic effects of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). Murine neutrophils and activated macrophages, however, produce NO, H2O2, and other reactive oxygen species to kill microorganisms, which suggests a paradox. In this study, we treated bacteria (Escherichia coli) with NO and H2O2 for 30 min and found that exposure to NO resulted in minimal toxicity, but greatly potentiated (up to 1,000-fold) H2O2-mediated killing, as evaluated by a clonogenic assay. The combination of NO/H2O2 induced DNA double strand breaks in the bacterial genome, as shown by field-inverted gel electrophoresis, and this increased DNA damage may correlate with cell killing. NO was also shown to alter cellular respiration and decrease the concentration of the antioxidant glutathione to a residual level of 15-20% in bacterial cells. The iron chelator desferrioxamine did not stop the action of NO on respiration and glutathione decrease, yet it prevented the NO/H2O2 synergistic cytotoxicity, implicating metal ions as critical participants in the NO/H2O2 cytocidal mechanism. Our results suggest a possible mechanism of modulation of H2O2-mediated toxicity, and we propose a new key role in the antimicrobial macrophagic response for NO.

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