The genetically controlled polymorphic oxidation of debrisoquine and sparteine is caused by the absence or functional deficiency of a cytochrome P-450 isozyme. In order to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the differences in cytochrome P-450 function we have studied the 1'-hydroxylation of the prototype drug bufuralol in human liver microsomes of individuals phenotyped in vivo as extensive metabolizers (EM, N = 10), poor metabolizers (PM, N = 5) and in subjects with an intermediate rate of metabolism (IM, N = 4). PM- as compared to EM-microsomes were characterized by a decreased Vmax for (+)-bufuralol 1'-hydroxylation (7.51 +/- 2.03 nmol X mg-1 X hr-1 vs 11.95 +/- 4.80 nmol X mg-1 X hr-1) but not for (-)-bufuralol 1'-hydroxylation (4.72 +/- 0.87 nmol X mg-1 X hr-1 vs 5.55 +/- 1.49 nmol X mg-1 X hr-1). The apparent Km for (+)-bufuralol 1'-hydroxylation was increased in PM microsomes (118 +/- 84.9 microM vs 17.9 +/- 6.30 microM). Inhibition of bufuralol 1'-hydroxylation by quinidine was biphasic in EM microsomes, providing further support for the involvement of at least two cytochrome P-450 isozymes. Quinidine acted as a competitive inhibitor of only the high affinity/stereoselectivity component of the reaction. Our data suggest that the debrisoquine/sparteine type of oxidation polymorphism is caused by an almost complete loss of a minor cytochrome P-450 isozyme which has a high affinity and stereoselectivity for (+)-bufuralol and a high sensitivity to inhibition by quinidine.