Life, death and nitric oxide

Life, death and nitric oxide
A Butler and R Nicholson
Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry 2003 | Pp 154 | ?21.95 (SB) | ISBN 0854046860
Reviewed by Paul Kelly

The Kuna Amerindians live on islands off the coast of Panama and, despite their high salt diet, it seems they are somewhat immune to age-related blood-pressure increases. A genetic effect can be ruled out thanks to the fact that when some of their number migrate to the big city they suffer with the rest of us. So what is it that is providing their life-enhancing protection back home? The answer comes in the form of cocoa - the Kuna are prodigious cocoa bean consumers - or, more specifically, the flavanoids present in the beans. Unfortunately for the Kunas, processed cocoa powder is low in such compounds and so they only gain the benefits when partaking of the home-grown beans. And the reason for the effectiveness of the flavanoids in question? Well it involves a molecule whose biological importance would have been dismissed out of hand only a few years ago and whose relationship to molecules such as flavanoids is far from immediately obvious. It is a molecule which flies in the face of the perceived wisdom that advances in biochemistry can only be achieved via the elucidation of ever more complex structures; it is, after all, just about as simple a structure as you can get. It is NO.

Nitric oxide is the subject of this well-written and nicely illustrated work, and all aspects of its history and chemistry are covered. As one might imagine this makes for a very eclectic mixture of facts and protagonists. Thus alongside the aforementioned Kunas, we find Stephen Hales the curate who first measured blood pressure (actually in 1733 rather than the quoted 1773) rubbing shoulders with the Nobel laureates who first identified NO as a vital messenger molecule in the late 1980s. We learn that the gas disrupts a tadpole’s swimming pattern, enhances a firefly’s flashing and can provide valuable treatment to babies born with respiratory problems. The authors even note that an article on the importance of NO to the mode of action of Viagra surely constitutes the only occurrence of the phrase ’small diatomic molecule’ in the entire canon of Cosmopolitan magazine!

Put simply, anyone involved in chemistry at any level will be better off for reading this fascinating little book - a book which ably illustrates the rich history and great potential associated with this ostensibly humble molecule.