Nitric oxide (NO) plays an important role as a cell-signalling molecule, anti-infective agent and, as most recently recognised, an antioxidant. The metabolic fate of NO gives rise to a further series of compounds, collectively known as the reactive nitrogen species (RNS), which possess their own unique characteristics. In this review we discuss this emerging aspect of the NO field in the context of the formation of the RNS and what is known about their effects on biological systems. While much of the insight into the RNS has been gained from the extensive chemical characterisation of these species, to reveal biological consequences this approach must be complemented by direct measures of physiological function. Although we do not know the consequences of many of the dominant chemical reactions of RNS an intriguing aspect is now emerging. This review will illustrate how, when specificity and amplification through cell signalling mechanisms are taken into account, the less significant reactions, in terms of yield or rates, can explain many of the biological responses of exposure of cells or physiological systems to RNS. Copyright (C) 1999 Elsevier Science B.V.