Nitric oxide (NO) synthase, the enzyme responsible for the generation of the cytotoxic compound NO from L-arginine, is induced in macrophages during activation. Previous work demonstrated that the cytotoxicity of NO extends to the macrophages that produce it, because the activity of NO synthase in these cells correlates inversely with their life span in culture. Data presented here demonstrate that the NO-dependent death of murine peritoneal macrophages activated in vitro with IFN-gamma and LPS is mediated through apoptosis. Evidence in this direction was provided by microscopic examination of the cells, which revealed the presence of nuclear and cytoplasmic alterations characteristic of apoptosis, and by the specific pattern of internucleosomal DNA fragmentation detected by electrophoresis. That these alterations resulted from the production of NO was confirmed by the preventive effects of cell activation in L-arginine-restricted medium or in medium containing an inhibitor of NO synthase, NG-monomethy L-arginine, and more directly by the induction of apoptosis by exposure of the cells to authentic NO gas. Additional results demonstrated that glucose starvation, the inhibition of the tricarboxylic acid cycle with fluorocitrate or of glycolysis with iodoacetate, but not the suppression of the electron transport chain with potassium cyanide, also induced macrophage apoptosis. The potential role of metabolic inhibition as a mechanism for NO-mediated apoptosis, as well as the relationship of these findings with events occurring in wounds and other sites of macrophage infiltration are discussed.

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