Short-chain dehydrogenases/reductases (SDR) constitute a large protein family. Presently, at least 57 characterized, highly different enzymes belong to this family and typically exhibit residue identities only at the 15-30% level, indicating early duplicatory origins and extensive divergence. In addition, another family of 22 enzymes with extended protein chains exhibits part-chain SDR relationships and represents enzymes of no less than three EC classes. Furthermore, subforms and species variants are known of both families. In the combined SDR superfamily, only one residue is strictly conserved and ascribed a crucial enzymatic function (Tyr 151 in the numbering system of human NAD(+)-linked prostaglandin dehydrogenase). Such a function for this Tyr residue in SDR enzymes in general is supported also by chemical modifications, site-directed mutagenesis, and an active site position in those tertiary structures that have been characterized. A lysine residue four residues downstream is also largely conserved. A model for catalysis is available on the basis of these two residues. Binding of the coenzyme, NAD(H) or NADP(H), is in the N-terminal part of the molecules, where a common GlyXXXGlyXGly pattern occurs. Two SDR enzymes established by X-ray crystallography show a one-domain subunit with seven to eight beta-strands. Conformational patterns are highly similar, except for variations in the C-terminal parts. Additional structures occur in the family with extended chains. Some of the SDR molecules are known under more than one name, and one of the enzymes has been shown to be susceptible to native, chemical modification, producing reduced Schiff base adducts with pyruvate and other metabolic keto derivatives. Most SDR enzymes are dimers and tetramers. In those analyzed, the area of major subunit contacts involves two long alpha-helices (alpha E, alpha F) in similar and apparently strong subunit interactions. Future possibilities include verification of the proposed reaction mechanism and tracing of additional relationships, perhaps also with other protein families. Short-chain dehydrogenases illustrate the value of comparisons and diversified research in generating unexpected discoveries.