Decomposition of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2 ) at physiological levels was studied in human erythrocytes by means of a recently developed sensitive H2O2 assay. The exponential decay of H2O2 in the presence of purified erythrocyte catalase was followed down to 10(-9) mol/L H2O2 at pH 7.4. H2O2 decomposition by purified erythrocyte glutathione peroxidase (GPO) could be directly observed down to 10(-7) mol/L H2O2 . No enzyme inhibition was observed at these low H2O2 concentrations. Catalase and GPO activities can be determined separately in a titrated mixture of purified enzymes, which simulates the conditions of H2O2 removal by the erythrocyte. Experiments with fresh human hemolysate allowed us to determine H2O2 decomposition by catalase and GPO using these enzymes in their original quantitative ratio. The different kinetics of these enzymes are shown: H2O2 decomposition by catalase depends linearly on H2O2 concentration, whereas that by GPO becomes saturated at concentrations above 10(-6) mol/L H2O2. Even at very low H2O2 concentrations GPO reaches only approximately 8% of the rate at which catalase simultaneously degrades H2O2. These data indicate an almost exclusive role for catalase in the removal of H2O2 in normal human erythrocytes.