1. The main metabolites of rifampin and rifabutin in man are their respective 25 deacetylated derivatives, but the enzyme(s) responsible for these biotransformations are not known. 2. In experiments with human liver slices and human liver microsomes, the 25 deacetylated derivatives of these drugs were the main metabolites observed. Slices and microsomes metabolized rifabutin 3-6-fold faster than rifampin, in agreement with their relative clearance in patients. Rifabutin partitioned into slices more avidly than rifampin. 3. In microsomal incubations, deacetylation did not require NADPH, but the amount of metabolite at the end of incubation was affected by NADPH. With NADPH the amount of 25 deacetyl rifabutin decreased, whereas the amount of 25 deacetyl rifampin increased slightly. A panel of liver microsomes from seven donors showed a 3-4-fold difference in the formation of 25 deacetyl rifabutin or 25 deacetyl rifampin, with strong correlation between the production of the two metabolites (r2 = 0.94). 4. The production of 25 deacetyl rifabutin and 25 deacetyl rifampin by human liver microsomes was not significantly affected by 1 microM 4 chloromercuricbenzoic acid or bis-(4-nitrophenyl) phosphate, but was completely inhibited by 1 microM paraoxon or 1 microM diisopropylfluorophosphate. These results indicate that in man rifampin and rifabutin are deacetylated to their main metabolites by B-esterases.