ALDH3A1 (aldehyde dehydrogenase 3A1) is expressed at high concentrations in the mammalian cornea and it is believed that it protects this vital tissue and the rest of the eye against UV-light-induced damage. The precise biological function(s) and cellular distribution of ALDH3A1 in the corneal tissue remain to be elucidated. Among the hypotheses proposed for ALDH3A1 function in cornea is detoxification of aldehydes formed during UV-induced lipid peroxidation. To investigate in detail the biochemical properties and distribution of this protein in the human cornea, we expressed human ALDH3A1 in Sf9 insect cells using a baculovirus vector and raised monoclonal antibodies against ALDH3A1. Recombinant ALDH3A1 protein was purified to homogeneity with a single-step affinity chromatography method using 5'-AMP-Sepharose 4B. Human ALDH3A1 demonstrated high substrate specificity for medium-chain (6 carbons and more) saturated and unsaturated aldehydes, including 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal, which are generated by the peroxidation of cellular lipids. Short-chain aliphatic aldehydes, such as acetaldehyde, propionaldehyde and malondialdehyde, were found to be very poor substrates for human ALDH3A1. In addition, ALDH3A1 metabolized glyceraldehyde poorly and did not metabolize glucose 6-phosphate, 6-phosphoglucono-delta-lactone and 6-phosphogluconate at all, suggesting that this enzyme is not involved in either glycolysis or the pentose phosphate pathway. Immunohistochemistry in human corneas, using the monoclonal antibodies described herein, revealed ALDH3A1 expression in epithelial cells and stromal keratocytes, but not in endothelial cells. Overall, these cumulative findings support the metabolic function of ALDH3A1 as a part of a corneal cellular defence mechanism against oxidative damage caused by aldehydic products of lipid peroxidation. Both recombinant human ALDH3A1 and the highly specific monoclonal antibodies described in the present paper may prove to be useful in probing biological functions of this protein in ocular tissue.