A NAD-dependent 7alpha-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase was purified 18-fold over the activity in crude cell extracts prepared from Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron NCTC 10852 using Bio-Gel A 1.5-M column chromatography. A molecular weight of 320 000 was estimated for the partially purified intact enzyme. Substrate saturation kinetics were performed using the 18-fold purified enzyme and the lowest Km values were obtained for 3alpha,7alpha-dihydroxy bile acid and bile salt substrates including chenodeoxycholic acid (Km 0.048 mM), glycochenodeoxycholic acid (Km 0.083 mM) and taurochenodeoxycholic acid (Km 0.059 mM). In contrast, 3alpha,7alpha,12alpha-trihydroxy bile acid and bile salts had higher Km values, i.e. cholic acid (Km 0.22 mM), glycoholic acid Km 0.32 mM) and taurocholic acid Km 0.26 mM). NAD had a Km value of 0.20 mM. The possible physiological significance of 7alpha-hydroxy bile acid oxidation to intestinal bacteroides strains was accessed by determining the rate of conversion of [14C]-cholic acid to 7-ketodeoxy[14C]cholic acid by whole cell suspensions under different incubation conditions. The rate of biotransformation of bile acid to keto-bile acid incubated anaerobically under N2 gas increased markedly when potential electron acceptors such as fumarate (10 mM) or menadione (4 mM) was added exogenously. These results suggest that bile acid oxidation reactions may be linked to energy-generating systems in this bacterium.