Formaldehyde can be metabolized primarily by two different pathways, one involving oxidation by the low-Km mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase, the other involving a specific, glutathione-dependent, formaldehyde dehydrogenase. To estimate the roles played by each enzyme in formaldehyde metabolism by rat hepatocytes, experiments with acetaldehyde and cyanamide, a potent inhibitor of the low-Km aldehyde dehydrogenase were carried out. The glutathione-dependent oxidation of formaldehyde by 100,000g rat liver supernatant fractions was not affected by either acetaldehyde or by cyanamide. By contrast, the uptake of formaldehyde by intact mitochondria was inhibited 75 to 90% by cyanamide. Acetaldehyde inhibited the uptake of formaldehyde by mitochondria in a competitive fashion. Formaldehyde was a weak inhibitor of the oxidation of acetaldehyde by mitochondria, suggesting that, relative to formaldehyde, acetaldehyde was a preferred substrate. In isolated hepatocytes, cyanamide, which inhibited the oxidation of acetaldehyde by 75 to 90%, produced only 30 to 50% inhibition of formaldehyde uptake by cells as well as of the production of 14CO2 and of formate from [14C]formaldehyde. The extent of inhibition by cyanamide was the same as that produced by acetaldehyde (30-40%). In the presence of cyanamide, acetaldehyde was no longer inhibitory, suggesting that acetaldehyde and cyanamide may act at the same site(s) and inhibit the same formaldehyde-oxidizing enzyme system. These results suggest that, in rat hepatocytes, formaldehyde is oxidized by cyanamide- and acetaldehydesensitive (low-Km aldehyde dehydrogenase) and insensitive (formaldehyde dehydrogenase) reactions, and that both enzymes appear to contribute about equally toward the overall metabolism of formaldehyde.