Recently, it was reported that nitric oxide (NO) directly controls intracellular iron metabolism by activating iron regulatory protein (IRP), a cytoplasmic protein that regulates ferritin translation. To determine whether intracellular iron levels themselves affect NO synthase (NOS), we studied the effect of iron on cytokine-inducible NOS activity and mRNA expression in the murine macrophage cell line J774A.1. We show here that NOS activity is decreased by about 50% in homogenates obtained from cells treated with interferon gamma plus lipopolysaccharide (IFN-gamma/LPS) in the presence of 50 microM ferric iron [Fe(3+)] as compared with extracts from cells treated with IFN-gamma/LPS alone. Conversely, addition of the iron chelator desferrioxamine (100 microM) at the time of stimulation with IFN-gamma/LPS increases NOS activity up to 2.5-fold in J774 cells. These effects of changing the cellular iron state cannot be attributed to a general alteration of the IFN-gamma/LPS signal, since IFN-gamma/LPS-mediated major histocompatibility complex class II antigen expression is unaffected. Furthermore, neither was the intracellular availability of the NOS cofactor tetrahydrobiopterin altered by treatment with Fe(3+) or desferrioxamine, nor do these compounds interfere with the activity of the hemoprotein NOS in vitro. We demonstrate that the mRNA levels for NOS are profoundly increased by treatment with desferrioxamine and reduced by Fe(3+). The half-life of NOS mRNA appeared not to be significantly altered by administration of ferric ion, and NOS mRNA stability was only slightly prolonged by desferrioxamine treatment. Nuclear run-off experiments demonstrate that nuclear transcription of cytokine-inducible NOS mRNA is strongly increased by desferrioxamine whereas it is decreased by Fe(3+). Thus, this transcriptional response appears to account quantitatively for the changes in enzyme activity. Our results suggest the existence of a regulatory loop between iron metabolism and the NO/NOS pathway.