Lactase-phlorizin hydrolase, which hydrolyzes lactose, the major carbohydrate in milk, plays a critical role in the nutrition of the mammalian neonate. Lactose intolerance in adult humans is common, usually due to low levels of small intestinal lactase. Low lactase levels result from either intestinal injury or (in the majority of the world's adult population) alterations in the genetic expression of lactase. Although the mechanism of decreased lactase levels has been the subject of intensive investigation, no consensus has yet emerged. Recent studies have begun to define the cellular and molecular biology of this enzyme. In animals and humans, a glycosylated precursor is proteolytically cleaved to yield the mature enzyme on the microvillus membrane of the enterocyte, bound to the lipid bilayer only by a hydrophobic anchor sequence. The enzyme hydrolyzes lactose, phlorizin, and glycosylceramides. A decline in lactase specific activity occurs at the time of weaning in most mammalian species; in most humans who have low lactase activity as adults, the decline occurs at approximately 3-5 years of age. In a few human groups, the elevated juvenile level of lactase specific activity persists throughout adulthood. These developmental patterns of lactase expression are most likely regulated at the level of gene transcription.