The activities of aspartate and alanine aminotransferases in biological samples were assessed through a novel and sensitive procedure, based on the conversion of [U-14C]2-ketoglutarate to L-[U-14C]glutamate. In human plasma, the generation of L-[U-14C]glutamate was proportional to the volume of plasma (20-60 microL) and to the length of incubation (30-90 min). The reaction velocity was related to the temperature with a Q10 close to 1.7 for aspartate aminotransferase and 2.0 for alanine aminotransferase. At 37 degrees C, the 95% confidence interval in healthy subjects ranged from 5.1-18.8 U/mL (mean value 11.9 U/L) for aspartate aminotransferase and from zero to 20.1 U/L (mean value 9.9 U/L) for alanine aminotransferase. The intra-assay coefficient of variation did not exceed 2.5%. The present method was also applied to homogenates prepared from rat pancreatic islets, liver, heart, parotid glands, and erythrocytes, using no more than 40 micrograms wet weight of tissue per sample, and could thus be used in small biological samples, such as those obtained by needle biopsy.