Choline is a component of the normal diet, and when humans ingest large amounts they excrete trimethylamine (which can impart a fishy body odor). In the presence of nitrite, trimethylamine can be converted to dimethylnitrosamine, a potent carcinogen. Bacteria in the large intestine metabolize choline to form trimethylamine. We determined that a bacterium normally present in the oral cavity also has this capacity. Mixed bacterial flora cultured from dental plaque and saliva converted choline to trimethylamine. The only organism with trimethylamine-forming capability isolated from these mixed cultures was identified as Streptococcus sanguis I (a facultative anaerobe). The other products formed when choline was cleaved were ethanol and acetate. The formation of trimethylamine by S. sanguis I was enzyme-mediated. Activity was destroyed by heating at 100 degrees C, and obeyed Michaelis-Menten kinetics (K(apparent) for choline = 184 +/- 58 microM; V(max apparent) = 1.7 +/- 0.1 micromol/mg protein/h). Activity was maximal at pH 7.5 to 8.5, was membrane-bound, and required a divalent metal cation (cobalt or iron). More trimethylamine was produced by bacteria incubated under a nitrogen than under an aerobic atmosphere. Activity was inhibited by deanol, betaine aldehyde, hemicholinium-3, iodoacetate, semicarbazide, and 2,4-dinitrophenol, and was enhanced by sulfhydryl-reducing agents (glutathione, 2-mercaptoethanol, DL-dithiothreitol) and sodium bisulfite. The enzyme activity that we describe in S. sanguis I is similar to that previously described in the anaerobic bacteria isolated from intestinal flora.