© 2018 The British Pharmacological Society Inorganic nitrate (NO3−), nitrite (NO2−) and NO are nitrogenous species with a diverse and interconnected chemical biology. The formation of NO from nitrate and nitrite via a reductive ‘nitrate–nitrite–NO’ pathway and resulting in vasodilation is now an established complementary route to traditional NOS-derived vasodilation. Nitrate, found in our diet and abundant in mammalian tissues and circulation, is activated via reduction to nitrite predominantly by our commensal oral microbiome. The subsequent in vivo reduction of nitrite, a stable vascular reserve of NO, is facilitated by a number of haem-containing and molybdenum-cofactor proteins. NO generation from nitrite is enhanced during physiological and pathological hypoxia and in disease states involving ischaemia–reperfusion injury. As such, modulation of these NO vascular repositories via exogenously supplied nitrite and nitrate has been evaluated as a therapeutic approach in a number of diseases. Ultimately, the chemical biology of nitrate and nitrite is governed by local concentrations, reaction equilibrium constants, and the generation of transient intermediates, with kinetic rate constants modulated at differing physiological pH values and oxygen tensions. Linked Articles: This article is part of a themed section on Nitric Oxide 20 Years from the 1998 Nobel Prize. To view the other articles in this section visit http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bph.v176.2/issuetoc.