In most higher plants a period of desiccation is the terminal event in embryogenesis. Excised barley embryos acquire desiccation tolerance at a precise developmental stage and cDNA clones have been isolated which are temporally linked with desiccation tolerance. One such clone (pG22-69) with a putative gene product of 34 kd displays high structural homology to mammalian genes encoding an NADPH dependent aldose reductase involved in the synthesis of sorbitol. This first aldose reductase gene of plants is expressed constitutively during embryo maturation and is modulated by the plant hormones abscisic acid (ABA) and gibberellic acid (GA). Immunohistochemistry showed that the protein is preferentially expressed in tissues formed at early stages in embryogenesis. Measurements of enzymatic activity indicate that pG22-69 encodes an active aldose reductase. The finding of this reductase activity and the cloning of the corresponding gene supports the existence of a metabolic pathway in plants playing a role in the synthesis of osmolytes like sorbitol. The significance of this work is that genes of related structure and functions are being used in diverse organisms to fulfil stress related biological requirements.