The oxidation of phytanic acid to pristanic acid was previously demonstrated to be deficient in monolayer cultures of skin fibroblasts (Herndon et al. 1969. J. Clin. Invest. 48: 1017-1032). However, identification of subcellular organelle with deficient enzyme activity has not been established. To define the subcellular organelle with deficient enzyme activity in the catabolism of phytanic acid, we measured the oxidation of [1-14C] phytanic acid to 14CO2 and pristanic acid in different subcellular organelles isolated from cultured skin fibroblasts from control and Refsum patients. The rates of oxidation of phytanic acid in peroxisomes, mitochondria, and endoplasmic reticulum were 37.1 +/- 2.65, 1.9 +/- 0.3, and 0.4 +/- 0.07 pmol/h per mg protein, respectively, from control fibroblasts. The phytanic acid oxidation activity in mitochondria (2.04 +/- 0.7 pmol/h per mg protein) and endoplasmic reticulum (0.43 +/- 0.2 pmol/h per mg protein) from Refsum fibroblasts was similar to control fibroblasts. However, phytanic acid oxidation in peroxisomes from Refsum fibroblasts was not detected at all the protein concentrations tested. On the other hand, the peroxisomes from Refsum fibroblasts had normal rates of activation and oxidation of palmitic and lignoceric acids, suggesting that the peroxisomes isolated from Refsum fibroblasts were metabolically active. The phytanoyl-CoA ligase, the first enzyme in the alpha-oxidation pathway, had activity similar to that in peroxisomes from control (9.86 +/- 0.09 nmol/h per mg protein) and Refsum (10.25 +/- 0.31 nmol/h per mg protein) fibroblasts. The data described here clearly demonstrate that pathognomonic accumulation of phytanic acid in patients with Refsum disease is due to the deficient activity of peroxisomal alpha-oxidation enzyme system.