Sphinganine and 4-hydroxysphinganine (phytosphingosine) are the predominant free long-chain bases in lipid extracts of plant tissues. While the synthesis of sphinganine in plants has been investigated, the metabolic origin of 4-hydroxysphinganine is not known. Three different approaches utilizing fumonisin B(1), an inhibitor of sphinganine acylation, alone or in combination with beta-chloroalanine, an inhibitor of sphinganine synthesis, were used to establish that free 4-hydroxysphinganine is produced in excised corn shoots by the direct hydroxylation of sphinganine and not from the breakdown of complex sphingolipids. Sphinganine hydroxylase activity was characterized in microsomes isolated from corn. The enzyme was found to utilize D-erythro-sphinganine (with half-maximal activity observed at a substrate concentration of approximately 60 microM) and either NADPH (K(m)=33 microM) or NADH (K(m)=58 microM) as substrates. Ceramide hydroxylation was also demonstrated in corn microsomes, and the lack of competition between ceramide and sphinganine suggests the presence of distinct enzymes responsible for hydroxylating these two substrates. Using marker assays, sphinganine hydroxylase activity was localized to the endoplasmic reticulum. Sphinganine hydroxylase activity in microsomes isolated from corn shoots treated with fumonisin B(1) increased more than 3-fold compared to controls. The results of this study shed light on sphingolipid long-chain base synthesis and modification in plant tissues and suggest a possible contribution of sphinganine hydroxylase in manifesting the effects of fumonisin in plants.