Excessive ethanol consumption has been related with the development of liver cirrhosis, as well as with rapid intestinal transit time and diarrhea. Moreover, heavy drinking is associated with an increased incidence of cancer of the oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, and colorectum. Acetaldehyde of microbial origin has recently been suggested as a possible pathogenic factor behind this alcohol-associated gastrointestinal morbidity. The present in vitro study was aimed to investigate alcohol dehydrogenase activity and acetaldehyde formation capacity of some major aerobic bacteria representing the normal colonic flora in man. Cytosolic alcohol dehydrogenase activity and cytosolic protein concentration were determined spectrophotometrically. Alcohol dehydrogenase activity was then calculated as nmoles of reduced substrate produced by milligrams of protein per minute. The ability of different bacteria to produce acetaldehyde was determined by incubating the intact bacterial suspension in closed vials containing ethanol (final concentration 22 mM) for 1 hr at 37 degrees C. The acetaldehyde formed during the incubation was analyzed by headspace gas chromatography. Marked differences in the alcohol dehydrogenase activity and acetaldehyde forming capacity were found among the strains tested. The alcohol dehydrogenase activity varied from 606 +/- 91 nmol/min/mg protein (Escherichia coli IH 50546) to 1 +/- 0.2 nmol/min/mg protein (E. coli IH 50817), and acetaldehyde formation varied from 1,717 +/- 2 nmol acetaldehyde/10(9) colony-forming units (Klebsiella oxytoca IH 35403) to 5 +/- 2 nmol acetaldehyde/10(9) colony-forming units (Pseudomonas aeruginosa ATCC 27853). There was a statistically significant correlation (r = 0.77; p < 0.001) between alcohol dehydrogenase activity and acetaldehyde production from ethanol, strongly suggesting the catalytic role of bacterial alcohol dehydrogenase in this reaction.