The oxidation of thiourea, phenylthiourea, 1,3-diphenylthiourea, 1,3-bis-(3,4-dichlorophenyl)-2-thiourea and 1,1-dibenzyl-3-phenyl-2-thiourea was measured in reactions catalyzed by purified pig liver flavin-containing monooxygenase (FMO-1) and by microsomal fractions isolated from pig, guinea pig, chicken, rat and rabbit tissues. The reactions, followed by measuring substrate-dependent thiocholine oxidation [Guo and Ziegler, Anal Biochem 198: 143-148, 1991], were carried out in the presence of 2 mM 1-benzylimidazole to minimize potential interference from reactions other than those catalyzed by isoforms of the flavin-containing monooxygenase (FMO). While at saturating substrate concentrations the Vmax for purified FMO-1 catalyzed oxidation of all five thiocarbamides was essentially constant, velocities for the microsomal catalyzed reactions varied not only with tissue and species but also with the van der Waals' surface area of the thiocarbamide. Rat liver, rat kidney and rabbit liver microsomes failed to catalyze detectable oxidation of thiocarbamides larger than 1,3-diphenylthiourea and lung microsomes from a female rabbit only accepted substrates smaller than 1,3-diphenylthiourea. On the other hand, liver microsomes from chickens, pigs and guinea pigs catalyzed the oxidation of larger thiocarbamides, but the rates decreased with increasing substrate size and chicken liver microsomes showed no detectable activity with the largest thiocarbamide tested. To define more precisely the parameters affecting thiocarbamide substrate specificity of microsomal preparations, activities present in detergent extracts of guinea pig liver microsomes were separated into three distinct fractions. The substrate specificities of these partially purified fractions were different and consistent with the difference observed with microsomal catalyzed reactions. This strongly suggests that thiocarbamides that differ in size may be useful probes for measuring the number of activities of FMO isoforms in crude tissue preparations.