In the present study, we expressed human flavin-containing monooxygenase 1 (FMO1), FMO3, FMO4t (truncated), and FMO5 in the baculovirus expression vector system at levels of 0.6 to 2.4 nmol FMO/mg of membrane protein. These four isoforms, as well as purified rabbit FMO2, and eleven heterologously expressed human P450 isoforms were examined for their capacity to metabolize trimethylamine (TMA) to its N-oxide (TMAO), using a new, specific HPLC method with radiochemical detection. Human FMO3 was by far the most active isoform, exhibiting a turnover number of 30 nmol TMAO/nmol FMO3/min at pH 7.4 and 0.5 mM TMA. None of the other monooxygenases formed TMAO at rates greater than 1 nmol/nmol FMO/min under these conditions. Human fetal liver, adult liver, kidney and intestine microsomes were screened for TMA oxidation, and only human adult liver microsomes provided substantial TMAO-formation (range 2.9 to 9.1 nmol TMAO/mg protein/min, N = 5). Kinetic studies of TMAO formation by recombinant human FMO3, employing three different analytical methods, resulted in a Km of 28 +/- 1 microM and a Vmax of 36.3 +/- 5.7 nmol TMAO/nmol FMO3/min. The Km determined in human liver microsomes ranged from 13.0 to 54.8 microM. Therefore, at physiological pH, human FMO3 is a very specific and efficient TMA N-oxygenase, and is likely responsible for the metabolic clearance of TMA in vivo in humans. In addition, this specificity provides a good in vitro probe for the determination of FMO3-mediated activity in human tissues, by analyzing TMAO formation at pH 7.4 with TMA concentrations not higher than 0.5 mM.