Retinol dehydrogenase 12 (RDH12) is a novel member of the short-chain dehydrogenase/reductase superfamily of proteins that was recently linked to Leber's congenital amaurosis 3 (LCA). We report the first biochemical characterization of purified human RDH12 and analysis of its expression in human tissues. RDH12 exhibits approximately 2000-fold lower K(m) values for NADP(+) and NADPH than for NAD(+) and NADH and recognizes both retinoids and lipid peroxidation products (C(9) aldehydes) as substrates. The k(cat) values of RDH12 for retinaldehydes and C(9) aldehydes are similar, but the K(m) values are, in general, lower for retinoids. The enzyme exhibits the highest catalytic efficiency for all-trans-retinal (k(cat)/K(m) approximately 900 min(-)(1) microM(-)(1)), followed by 11-cis-retinal (450 min(-)(1) mM(-)(1)) and 9-cis-retinal (100 min(-)(1) mM(-)(1)). Analysis of RDH12 activity toward retinoids in the presence of cellular retinol-binding protein (CRBP) type I or cellular retinaldehyde-binding protein (CRALBP) suggests that RDH12 utilizes the unbound forms of all-trans- and 11-cis-retinoids. As a result, the widely expressed CRBPI, which binds all-trans-retinol with much higher affinity than all-trans-retinaldehyde, restricts the oxidation of all-trans-retinol by RDH12, but has little effect on the reduction of all-trans-retinaldehyde, and CRALBP inhibits the reduction of 11-cis-retinal stronger than the oxidation of 11-cis-retinol, in accord with its higher affinity for 11-cis-retinal. Together, the tissue distribution of RDH12 and its catalytic properties suggest that, in most tissues, RDH12 primarily contributes to the reduction of all-trans-retinaldehyde; however, at saturating concentrations of peroxidic aldehydes in the cells undergoing oxidative stress, for example, photoreceptors, RDH12 might also play a role in detoxification of lipid peroxidation products.