Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that is slightly less dense than air. It is toxic to humans when encountered in concentrations above about 35 ppm, although it is also produced in normal animal metabolism in low quantities, and is thought to have some normal biological functions. In the atmosphere, it is spatially variable and short lived, having a role in the formation of ground-level ozone. Carbon monoxide consists of one carbon atom and one oxygen atom, connected by a triple bond that consists of two covalent bonds as well as one dative covalent bond. It is the simplest oxocarbon, and isoelectronic with the cyanide ion and molecular nitrogen. In coordination complexes the carbon monoxide ligand is called carbonyl. Carbon monoxide is produced from the partial oxidation of carbon-containing compounds; it forms when there is not enough oxygen to produce carbon dioxide (CO2), such as when operating a stove or an internal combustion engine in an enclosed space. In the presence of oxygen, including atmospheric concentrations, carbon monoxide burns with a blue flame, producing carbon dioxide. Coal gas, which was widely used before the 1960s for domestic lighting, cooking, and heating, had carbon monoxide as a significant fuel constituent. Some processes in modern technology, such as iron smelting, still produce carbon monoxide as a byproduct. Worldwide, the largest source of carbon monoxide is natural in origin, due to photochemical reactions in the troposphere that generate about 5 kilograms per year. Other natural sources of CO include volcanoes, forest fires, and other forms of combustion. In biology, carbon monoxide is naturally produced by the action of heme oxygenase 1 and 2 on the heme from hemoglobin breakdown. This process produces a certain amount of carboxyhemoglobin in normal persons, even if they do not breathe any carbon monoxide. Following the first report that carbon monoxide is a normal neurotransmitter in 1993, as well as one of three gases that naturally modulate inflammatory responses in the body (the other two being nitric oxide and hydrogen sulfide), carbon monoxide has received a great deal of clinical attention as a biological regulator. In many tissues, all three gases are known to act as anti-inflammatories, vasodilators, and promoters of neovascular growth. Clinical trials of small amounts of carbon monoxide as a drug are ongoing.
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