Using the stereospecific metabolism of (+)- and (-)-bufuralol and (+)- and (-)-metoprolol as model reactions, we have characterized the enzymic deficiency of the debrisoquine/sparteine-type polymorphism by comparing kinetic data of subjects in vivo with their microsomal activities in vitro and with reconstituted activities of cytochrome P-450 isozymes purified from human liver. The metabolism of bufuralol in liver microsomes of in vivo phenotyped 'poor metabolizers' of debrisoquine and/or sparteine is characterized by a marked increase in Km, a decrease in Vmax and a virtual loss of the stereoselectivity of the reaction. These parameters apparently allow the 'phenotyping' of microsomes in vitro. A structural model of the active site of a cytochrome P-450 for stereospecific metabolism of bufuralol and other polymorphically metabolized substrates was constructed. Two cytochrome P-450 isozymes, P-450 buf I and P-450 buf II, both with MW 50,000 Da, were purified from human liver on the basis of their ability to metabolize bufuralol to 1'-hydroxy-bufuralol. However, P-450 buf I metabolized bufuralol in a highly stereoselective fashion ((-)/(+) ratio 0.16) as compared to P-450 buf II (ratio 0.99) and had a markedly lower Km for bufuralol. Moreover, bufuralol 1'-hydroxylation by P-450 buf I was uniquely characterized by its extreme sensitivity to inhibition by quinidine. Antibodies against P-450 buf I and P-450 buf II inhibited bufuralol metabolism in microsomes and with the reconstituted enzymes. Immunochemical studies with these antibodies with microsomes and translations in vitro of RNA from livers of extensive and poor metabolizers showed no evidence for a decrease in the recognized protein or its mRNA. Because the antibodies do not discriminate between P-450 buf I and P-450 buf II, both a decreased content of P-450 buf I or its functional alteration could explain the polymorphic metabolism in microsomes. The genetically defective stereospecific metabolism of mephenytoin was determined in liver microsomes of extensive and poor metabolizers of mephenytoin phenotyped in vivo. Microsomes of poor metabolizers were characterized by an increased Km and a decreased Vmax for S-mephenytoin hydroxylation as compared to extensive metabolizers and a loss of stereospecificity for the hydroxylation of S-versus R-mephenytoin. A cytochrome P-450 with high activity for mephenytoin 4-hydroxylation was purified from human liver. Immunochemical studies with inhibitory antibodies against this isozyme suggest the presence in poor-metabolizer microsomes of a functionally altered enzyme.