Human acid ceramidase ((AC) N-acylsphingosine amidohydrolase, EC 3.5. 1.23) hydrolyzes the sphingolipid ceramide into sphingosine and free fatty acid. Ceramide is an essential component of all sphingolipids and an important cell-signaling molecule. Moreover, an inherited deficiency of AC activity leads to the lysosomal storage disorder known as Farber disease. Human AC was purified from urine, and 117 amino acid residues were determined by microsequencing. Degenerative oligonucleotide probes were then constructed and used to screen for human fibroblast and pituitary cDNA libraries. Several partial cDNA clones were obtained, and two of these were combined to construct a full-length cDNA containing a 17-base pair (bp) 5'-untranslated sequence, a 1185-bp open reading frame encoding 395 amino acids, a 1110-bp 3'-untranslated sequence, and an 18-bp poly(A) tail. Transient expression of the full-length cDNA in COS-1 cells led to a 10-fold increase in AC activity. In addition, biosynthetic studies carried out in the transfected cells demonstrated that 13-kDa (alpha) and 40-kDa (beta) AC subunits were derived from a common 55-kDa precursor encoded by the full-length cDNA. This protein pattern was identical to that seen in normal human skin fibroblasts. A homoallelic point mutation (T222K) was also identified in the AC gene of a patient suffering from Farber disease, further confirming the authenticity of the full-length cDNA.