The caffeine metabolite 5-acetamido-6-formylamino-3-methyluracil (AFMU) and its product of spontaneous deformylation 5-acetamido-6-amino-3-methyluracil (AAMU) were synthesized. Their ultraviolet absorption spectra differed significantly from each other and wavelengths of absorption maximum and molar extinction coefficients varied with pH. The changes of the absorption spectrum parameters of AFMU and AAMU with pH indicated that they ionized with pK(a) of 5.7 and 8.3, respectively. The spontaneous deformylation of AFMU in solutions of different pH and urine were investigated spectrophotometrically and by high-performance liquid chromatography. The data showed the following: (a) AFMU transformed uniquely to AAMU; (b) deformylation obeyed first-order kinetics under the different conditions tested; (c) the half-life of AFMU varied between 7.8 and 36 h between pH 9.0 and 2.0 at 24 degrees C, with a maximum of 150 h at pH 3.0; (d) AFMU deformylated below pH 2.0 and above pH 10.0 with a half-life of less than 4.6 h; (e) half-lives of AFMU in urine were 57 and 12.5 h at 24 and 37 degrees C, respectively, comparable to those in buffers at equivalent pH and temperature. The results are discussed in relation to the mechanism of deformylation and the use of caffeine as a probe drug for NAT2 phenotyping.