Polyols are sugar alcohols formed by the reduction of aldoses and ketoses. Production is favored under conditions of low oxygenation, when it may provide an alternative means to production of lactate for regulating the oxidation-reduction balance of pyridine nucleotides. Polyols also act as important organic osmolytes and as precursors of cell membrane components. We measured free sugar and polyol concentrations in matched samples of maternal serum, intervillous fluid, coelomic fluid, and amniotic fluid from normal human pregnancies at 5-12 wk gestational age. The concentrations of fructose, inositol, sorbitol, erythritol, and ribitol were significantly higher in coelomic and amniotic fluids than in maternal serum, but the reverse was the case for glucose and glycerol. Intervillous fluid concentrations of inositol, mannitol, and sorbitol were also significantly higher than those in maternal serum. These results demonstrate that the polyol pathway, considered vestigial in adult tissues, is highly active in the human conceptus during early pregnancy. The pathway may serve to maintain ATP concentrations and cellular redox potential while the embryo develops in a low oxygen environment. Polyols may also play important physiological roles in development of the human conceptus, possibly drawing water and solutes across the placenta and expanding the gestational sac.