In vegetative organs of plants, the metabolic switch from respiration to fermentation is dictated by oxygen availability. The two genes dedicated to ethanolic fermentation, pyruvate decarboxylase and alcohol dehydrogenase, are induced by oxygen deprivation and the gene products are active under oxygen stress. In pollen, these two genes are expressed in a stage-specific manner and transcripts accumulate to high levels, irrespective of oxygen availability. We have examined the expression pattern of pyruvate decarboxylase and alcohol dehydrogenase at the protein level in developing pollen and show that the active proteins are localized to the gametophytic tissue and begin to accumulate at microspore mitosis. A flux through the ethanolic fermentation pathway could already be detected very early in pollen development, occurring in all stages from premeiotic buds to mature pollen. This flux was primarily controlled not by oxygen availability, but rather by sugar supply. At a high rate of sugar metabolism, respiration and fermentation took place concurrently in developing and germinating pollen. We propose that aerobic fermentation provides a shunt from pyruvate to acetyl-CoA to accommodate the increased demand for energy and biosynthetic intermediates during pollen development and germination. A possible undesirable side-effect is the potential accumulation of toxic acetaldehyde. Our results support a model for cms-T-type male sterility in maize, in which degeneration of the tapetum is caused by the toxic effects of acetaldehyde on mitochondria weakened by the presence of the URF13 protein.