Ethanol can be oxidized to the 1-hydroxyethyl radical (HER) by rat and deer mice liver microsomal systems. Experiments were carried out to evaluate the ability of human liver microsomes to catalyze this reaction, compare the effectiveness of NADH with that of NADPH, and assess the possible role of cytochrome b5 in HER formation. HER was detected as the alpha-(4-pyridly-1 -oxide)-N-t-butylnitrone/HER adduct. Human liver microsomes catalyzed HER formation with either NADPH or NADH as cofactor; rates with NADH were approximately 50% those found with NADPH. Chelex-100 treatment of the reaction mixture produced marked inhibition of HER formation, suggesting that a transition metal, such as iron, was required to catalyze the reaction. The addition of ferric chloride restore HER formation. Catalase (2600 units/ml) and superoxide dismutases (500 units/ml) nearly completely inhibited the reaction with either NADPH or NADH. The NADH-dependent rates of superoxide production, detected as 5,5-dimethyl-1-pyrroline-N-oxide-O2H, were approximately 50% the NADPH-dependent rates, which is consistent with the rates of HER formation. Anti-cytochrome b5 IgG decreased NADPH- and NADH-dependent HER formation, and this was associated with inhibition of superoxide formation with both reductants. These results indicate that human liver microsomes can catalyze the oxidation of ethanol of HER with either NADPH or NADH as reductant. The effectiveness of NADH may be significant in view of the increased NADH/NAD+ redox ratio in the liver as a consequence of ethanol oxidation by alcohol dehydrogenase. HER formation by human liver microsomes seems to be catalyzed by an oxidant derived from the interaction of iron with superoxide or H2O2, and a close association exists between HER formation and superoxide production. Cytochrome b5 seems to play a role in HER formation, most likely due to its effect on superoxide production.