It is now well-established that folic acid, taken peri-conceptionally, can reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs). Recent work has demonstrated that an abnormality of homocysteine metabolism is a critical factor. The gene for 5,10 methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, an enzyme important in homocysteine metabolism, was studied in relation to NTDs. To determine the frequency of the allele for the thermolabile form of the reductase, DNA samples were collected from people with NTDs, parents of people with NTDs, and normal controls. Of 82 people with NTDs, 15 (18.3%) were homozygous for the abnormal, thermolabile allele. This was significantly higher (p = 0.01) than the rate of 6.1% in the control population (odds ratio 3.47, 95% CI 1.28-9.41). This is the first specific genetic abnormality to be identified in NTDs. It explains the association between some NTDs and elevated homocysteine, given that the reductase is important in homocysteine metabolism. It also explains how folic acid supplementation prevents some NTDs, by overcoming a partial block in the conversion of 5,10 methylenetetrahydrofolate to 5 methyltetrahydrofolate. Genetic screening could identify women who will require folic acid supplements to reduce their risk of having a child with an NTD.