Formaldehyde dehydrogenases isolated from several different biological sources have been reported to catalyze the NAD+-dependent oxidative acylation of glutathione by methylglyoxal to form S-pyruvylglutathione, suggesting the involvement of this enzyme in the metabolism of methylglyoxal. However, formaldehyde dehydrogenase from bovine liver is found not to use methylglyoxal or related alpha-ketoaldehydes as substrates. Using methylglyoxal with the enzyme under conditions favoring the forward reaction did not result in the formation of S-pyruvylglutathione. Using independently synthesized S-pyruvylglutathione with the enzyme under conditions favoring the reverse reaction did not result in the production of methylglyoxal. In addition, methylglyoxal and several related alpha-ketoaldehydes did not exhibit detectable activity with formaldehyde dehydrogenase partially purified from human liver, contrary to a previous report. Some, if not all, past reports that methylglyoxal serves as a substrate for the dehydrogenase may be due to the demonstrated presence of contaminating formaldehyde in some commercially available preparations of methylglyoxal. In a related study, S-hydroxymethylglutathione, formed by pre-equilibrium addition of formaldehyde to glutathione, is concluded to be direct substrate for the dehydrogenase. This follows from the observation that the catalytic turnover number of the enzyme in the forward direction exceeds by a factor of approximately 20 the first order rate constant for decomposition of S-hydroxymethylglutathione to glutathione and formaldehyde (k = 5.03 +/- 0.30 min-1, pH 8, 25 degrees C).