Aldehyde oxidase (AO) is a cytosolic enzyme expressed predominantly in the liver. AO is involved in the metabolism of many xenobiotics of pharmacological and toxicological importance including antivirals (famciclovir), antimalarials (quinine) and anticancer drugs (5-fluoro-2-pyrimidine and methotrexate). The aim of this study was to characterize AO activity in different strains of mice using two different substrates. AO activity in the cytosolic fraction was characterized using the metabolism of N-[2-(dimethylamino)ethyl]acridine-4-carboxamide (DACA), a novel antitumor drug, to form DACA-9(10H)-acridone (quantified by HPLC with fluorescence detection) and benzaldehyde to form benzoic acid (quantified spectrophotometrically). Characterization of mouse AO activity with DACA showed 15-fold variation in K(m), 10-fold variation in apparent V(max) and twofold differences in intrinsic clearance. Nude mice and C129/C57 had the highest intrinsic clearance (0.66 and 0.l53 ml/min per mg protein, respectively). Nude mice cleared DACA faster than nude tumor bearing mice by a factor of 2. Male Swiss CD had higher intrinsic clearance than female Swiss CD (0.36 and 0.28 ml/min per mg protein). A similar pattern of enzyme activity was observed with benzaldehyde; however, the extent of variation was less than that found with DACA. In conclusion, our results show that there are both strain and gender differences in AO activity. These differences are better detected by DACA. Furthermore, these results suggest caution when extrapolating the data obtained from mouse AO studies to humans.