Metabolic adaptations to environmental changes were studied in Caenorhabditis elegans. To assess adjustments in enzyme function, maximum activities of key enzymes of main metabolic pathways were determined. After a 12 h incubation at varying temperatures (10, 20 degrees C) and oxygen supplies (normoxia or anoxia), the activities of the following enzymes were determined at two measuring temperatures in tissue extracts: lactate dehydrogenase (LDH; anaerobic glycolysis), 3-hydroxyacyl-CoA-dehydrogenase (HCDH; fatty acid oxidation), isocitrate dehydrogenases (NAD-IDH, NADP-IDH; tricarboxylic acid cycle) and isocitrate lyase (ICL; glyoxylate cycle). Incubation at 20 degrees C induced a strong increase in maximum LDH activity. Anoxic incubation caused maximum HCDH and NADP-IDH activities and, at 10 degrees C incubation, LDH activity to increase. Maximum NAD-IDH and ICL activities were not influenced by any type of incubation. In order to study the time course of metabolic adaptations to varying oxygen supplies, relative quantities of free and protein-bound NADH were determined in living C. elegans using time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy. During several hours of anoxia, free and protein-bound NADH showed different time courses. One main result was that just at the moment when the protein-bound NADH had reached a constant level, and the free NADH started to increase rapidly, the worms fell into a rigor state. The data on enzyme activity and NADH fluorescence can be interpreted on the basis of a two-stage model of anaerobiosis.