Two isozymes (E1 and E2) of human aldehyde dehydrogenase (EC 188.8.131.52) were purified to homogeneity 13 years ago and a third isozyme (E3) with a low Km for gamma-aminobutyraldehyde only recently. Comparison with a variety of substrates demonstrates that substrate specificity of all three isozymes is broad and similar. With straight chain aliphatic aldehydes (C1-C6) the Km values of the E3 isozyme are identical with those of the E1 isozyme. All isozymes dehydrogenate naturally occurring aldehydes, 5-imidazoleacetaldehyde (histamine metabolite) and acrolein (product of beta-elimination of oxidized polyamines) with similar catalytic efficiency. Differences between the isozymes are in the Km values for aminoaldehydes. Although all isozymes can dehydrogenate gamma-aminobutyraldehyde, the Km value of the E3 isozyme is much lower: the same appears to apply to aldehyde metabolites of cadaverine, agmatine, spermidine, and spermine for which Km values range between 2-18 microM and kcat values between 0.8-1.9 mumol/min/mg. Thus, the E3 isozyme has properties which make it suitable for the metabolism of aminoaldehydes. The physiological role of E1 and E2 isozymes could be in dehydrogenation of aldehyde metabolites of monoamines such as 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetaldehyde or 5-hydroxyindoleacetaldehyde; the catalytic efficiency with these substrates is better with E1 and E2 isozymes than with E3 isozyme. Isoelectric focusing of liver homogenates followed by development with various physiological substrates together with substrate specificity data suggest that aldehyde dehydrogenase (EC 184.108.40.206) is the only enzyme in the human liver capable of catalyzing dehydrogenation of aldehydes arising via monoamine, diamine, and plasma amine oxidases. Although the enzyme is generally considered to function in detoxication, our data suggest an additional function in metabolism of biogenic amines.