Different short-chain dehydrogenases are distantly related, constituting a protein family now known from at least 20 separate enzymes characterized, but with extensive differences, especially in the C-terminal third of their sequences. Many of the first known members were prokaryotic, but recent additions include mammalian enzymes from placenta, liver and other tissues, including 15-hydroxyprostaglandin, 17 beta-hydroxysteroid and 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenases. In addition, species variants, isozyme-like multiplicities and mutants have been reported for several of the structures. Alignments of the different enzymes reveal large homologous parts, with clustered similarities indicating regions of special functional/structural importance. Several of these derive from relationships within a common type of coenzyme-binding domain, but central-chain patterns of similarity go beyond this domain. Total residue identities between enzyme pairs are typically around 25%, but single forms deviate more or less (14-58%). Only six of the 250-odd residues are strictly conserved and seven more are conserved in all but single cases. Over one third of the conserved residues are glycine, showing the importance of conformational and spatial restrictions. Secondary structure predictions, residue distributions and hydrophilicity profiles outline a common, N-terminal coenzyme-binding domain similar to that of other dehydrogenases, and a C-terminal domain with unique segments and presumably individual functions in each case. Strictly conserved residues of possible functional interest are limited, essentially only three polar residues. Asp64, Tyr152 and Lys156 (in the numbering of Drosophila alcohol dehydrogenase), but no histidine or cysteine residue like in the completely different, classical medium-chain alcohol dehydrogenase family. Asp64 is in the suggested coenzyme-binding domain, whereas Tyr152 and Lys156 are close to the center of the protein chain, at a putative inter-domain, active-site segment. Consequently, the overall comparisons suggest the possibility of related mechanisms and domain properties for different members of the short-chain family.