Differences in the pharmacokinetics of alcohol absorption and elimination are, in part, genetically determined. There are polymorphic variants of the two main enzymes responsible for ethanol oxidation in liver, alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase. The frequency of occurrence of these variants, which have been shown to display strikingly different catalytic properties, differs among different racial populations. Since the activity of alcohol dehydrogenase in liver is a rate-limiting factor for ethanol metabolism in experimental animals, it is likely that the type and content of the polymorphic isoenzyme subunit encoded at ADH2, beta-subunit, and at ADH3, the gamma-subunit, are contributing factors to the genetic variability in ethanol elimination rate. The recent development of methods for genotyping individuals at these loci using white cell DNA will allow us to test this hypothesis as well as any relationship between ADH genotype and the susceptibility to alcoholism or alcohol-related pathology. A polymorphic variant of human liver mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase, ADLH2, which has little or no acetaldehyde oxidizing activity has been identified. Individuals with the deficient ALDH2 phenotype do not have altered ethanol elimination rates but they do exhibit high blood acetaldehyde levels and dysphoric symptoms such as facial flushing, nausea and tachycardia, after drinking alcohol. Because acetaldehyde is so reactive, it binds to free amino groups of proteins including a 37 kilodalton hepatic protein-acetaldehyde adduct and may elicit an antibody response. We would predict that individuals who have low ALDH2 activity because of liver disease or because they have the inactive ALDH2 variant isoenzyme might form more protein-acetaldehyde adducts and elicit a greater immune response. These adducts may represent good biological markers of alcohol abuse and may also play a role in liver injury due to chronic alcohol consumption.