Cytochromes mediating the biotransformation of dextromethorphan to dextrorphan and 3-methoxymorphinan, its principal metabolites in man, have been studied by use of liver microsomes and microsomes containing individual cytochromes expressed by cDNA-transfected human lymphoblastoid cells. In-vitro formation of dextrorphan from dextromethorphan by liver microsomes was mediated principally by a high-affinity enzyme (Km (substrate concentration producing maximum reaction velocity) 3-13 microM). Formation of dextrorphan from 25 microM dextromethorphan was strongly inhibited by quinidine (IC50 (concentration resulting in 50% inhibition) = 0.37 microM); inhibition by sulphaphenazole was approximately 18% and omeprazole and ketoconazole had minimal effect. Dextrorphan was formed from dextromethorphan by microsomes from cDNA-transfected lymphoblastoid cells expressing CYP2C9, -2C19, and -2D6 but not by those expressing CYP1A2, -2E1 or -3A4. Despite the low in-vivo abundance of CYP2D6, this cytochrome was identified as the dominant enzyme mediating dextrorphan formation at substrate concentrations below 10 microM. Formation of 3-methoxy-morphinan from dextromethorphan in liver microsomes proceeded with a mean Km of 259 microM. For formation of 3-methoxymorphinan from 25 microM dextromethorphan the IC50 for ketoconazole was 1.15 microM; sulphaphenazole, omeprazole and quinidine had little effect. 3-Methoxymorphinan was formed by microsomes from cDNA-transfected lymphoblastoid cells expressing CYP2C9, -2C19, -2D6, and -3A4, but not by those expressing CYP1A2 or -2E1. CYP2C19 had the highest affinity (Km = 49 microM) whereas CYP3A4 had the lowest (Km = 1155 microM). Relative abundances of the four cytochromes were determined in liver microsomes by use of the relative activity factor approach. After adjustment for relative abundance, CYP3A4 was identified as the dominant enzyme mediating 3-methoxymorphinan formation from dextromethorphan, although CYP2C9 and -2C19 were estimated to contribute to 3-methoxymorphinan formation, particularly at low substrate concentrations. Although formation of dextrorphan from dextromethorphan appears to be sufficiently specific to be used as an in-vitro or in-vivo index reaction for profiling of CYP2D6 activity, the findings raise questions about the specificity of 3-methoxymorphinan formation as an index of CYP3A activity.