The metabolism of dextromethorphan, a drug used to probe genetically determined CYP2D6 activity has been investigated in vivo and in vitro. In vitro, kinetic parameters were determined in adult microsomes: Km for the O-demethylation was much lower than for N-demethylation (7 versus 650 microM) but Vmax was comparable. Fetal liver microsomes actively catalysed the N-demethylation of dextromethorphan, with kinetic parameters (Vmax and Km) quite similar in fetal and adult microsomal preparations while the O-demethylation did not exceed 5% of adult activity. In microsomes, the N-demethylation was inhibited by antibodies raised against CYP3A subfamily members although fetal microsomes were much less sensitive to immunoinhibition than adult microsomes. In vivo, urinary excretion of dextromethorphan and its three demethylated metabolites was examined in 155 adult volunteers and compared between extensive (n = 144, 92.9%) and poor (n = 11, 7.1%) metabolizers. The O-demethylation to dextrorphan is the rate-limiting step of metabolism. In 2D6 poor metabolizers, the N-demethylation to 3-methoxymorphinan is slightly higher than in 2D6 extensive metabolizers but does not compensate defective O-demethylation. The frequency distribution histograms of dextromethorphan/dextrorphan and 3-methoxymorphinan/3-hydroxymorphinan metabolic ratios appeared bimodally distributed, reflecting the participation of CYP2D6 in the O-demethylation reaction. They clearly differed from the random distribution of dextromethorphan/3-methoxymorphinan, and dextrorphan/3-hydroxymorphinan ratios among the population. These data clearly suggest that the N-demethylation of dextromethorphan is dependent on CYP3A and that both CYP2D6 and CYP3A are involved in the overall metabolism of dextromethorphan.