Glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH; EC 188.8.131.52-184.108.40.206) catalyses in vitro the reversible amination of 2-oxoglutarate to glutamate. In vascular plants the in vivo direction(s) of the GDH reaction and hence the physiological role(s) of this enzyme remain obscure. A phylogenetic analysis identified two clearly separated groups of higher-plant GDH genes encoding either the alpha- or beta-subunit of the GDH holoenzyme. To help clarify the physiological role(s) of GDH, tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L.) was transformed with either an antisense or sense copy of a beta-subunit gene, and transgenic plants recovered with between 0.5- and 34-times normal leaf GDH activity. This large modulation of GDH activity (shown to be via alteration of beta-subunit levels) had little effect on leaf ammonium or the leaf free amino acid pool, except that a large increase in GDH activity was associated with a significant decrease in leaf Asp (~51%, P=0.0045). Similarly, plant growth and development were not affected, suggesting that a large modulation of GDH beta-subunit titre does not affect plant viability under the ideal growing conditions employed. Reduction of GDH activity and protein levels in an antisense line was associated with a large increase in transcripts of a beta-subunit gene, suggesting that the reduction in beta-subunit levels might have been due to translational inhibition. In another experiment designed to detect post-translational up-regulation of GDH activity, GDH over-expressing plants were subjected to prolonged dark-stress. GDH activity increased, but this was found to be due more likely to resistance of the GDH protein to stress-induced proteolysis, rather than to post-translational up-regulation.