We have recently proposed the existence of a bacteriocolonic pathway for ethanol oxidation [i.e., ethanol is oxidized by alcohol dehydrogenases (ADHs) of intestinal bacteria resulting in high intracolonic levels of reactive and toxic acetaldehyde]. The aim of this in vitro study was to characterize further ADH activity of some aerobic bacteria, representing the normal human colonic flora. These bacteria were earlier shown to possess high cytosolic ADH activities (Escherichia coli IH 133369, Klebsiella pneumoniae IH 35385, Klebsiella oxytoca IH 35339, Pseudomonas aeruginosa IH 35342, and Hafnia alvei IH 53227). ADHs of the tested bacteria strongly preferred NAD as a cofactor. Marked ADH activities were found in all bacteria, even at low ethanol concentrations (1.5 mM) that may occur in the colon due to bacterial fermentation. The Km for ethanol varied from 29.9 mM for K. pneumoniae to 0.06 mM for Hafnia alvei. The inhibition of ADH by 4-methylpyrazole was found to be of the competitive type in 4 of 5 bacteria, and Ki varied from 18.26 +/- 3.3 mM for Escherichia coli to 0.47 +/- 0.13 mM for K. pneumoniae. At pH 7.4, ADH activity was significantly lower than at pH 9.6 in four bacterial strains. ADH of K. oxytoca, however, showed almost equal activities at neutral pH and at 9.6. In conclusion, NAD-linked alcohol dehydrogenases of aerobic colonic bacteria possess low apparent Km's for ethanol. Accordingly, they may oxidize moderate amounts of ethanol ingested during social drinking with nearly maximal velocity. This may result in the marked production of intracolonic acetaldehyde. Kinetic characteristics of the bacterial enzymes may enable some of them to produce acetaldehyde even from endogenous ethanol formed by other bacteria via alcoholic fermentation. The microbial ADHs were inhibited by 4-methylpyrazole by the same competitive inhibition as hepatic ADH, however, with nearly 1000 times lower susceptibility. Individual variations in human colonic flora may thus contribute to the risk of alcohol-related gastrointestinal morbidity, such as diarrhea, colon polyps and cancer, and liver injury.