Arginine is one of the most versatile amino acids in animal cells, serving as a precursor for the synthesis not only of proteins but also of nitric oxide, urea, polyamines, proline, glutamate, creatine and agmatine. Of the enzymes that catalyse rate-controlling steps in arginine synthesis and catabolism, argininosuccinate synthase, the two arginase isoenzymes, the three nitric oxide synthase isoenzymes and arginine decarboxylase have been recognized in recent years as key factors in regulating newly identified aspects of arginine metabolism. In particular, changes in the activities of argininosuccinate synthase, the arginases, the inducible isoenzyme of nitric oxide synthase and also cationic amino acid transporters play major roles in determining the metabolic fates of arginine in health and disease, and recent studies have identified complex patterns of interaction among these enzymes. There is growing interest in the potential roles of the arginase isoenzymes as regulators of the synthesis of nitric oxide, polyamines, proline and glutamate. Physiological roles and relationships between the pathways of arginine synthesis and catabolism in vivo are complex and difficult to analyse, owing to compartmentalized expression of various enzymes at both organ (e.g. liver, small intestine and kidney) and subcellular (cytosol and mitochondria) levels, as well as to changes in expression during development and in response to diet, hormones and cytokines. The ongoing development of new cell lines and animal models using cDNA clones and genes for key arginine metabolic enzymes will provide new approaches more clearly elucidating the physiological roles of these enzymes.
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