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Abstract

It is now widely accepted that the various pharmacologic and addictive consequences of alcohol consumption are related to the tissue concentration of ethanol or its metabolic products. The oxidative metabolism of ethanol in liver is principally catalyzed by alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase. Both of these enzymes exist in multiple molecular forms, and genetic models have been proposed to account for the multiplicity of isoenzymes. Alcohol dehydrogenase subunits are encoded at five different gene loci, and genetic polymorphism occurs at two alcohol dehydrogenase loci. Variant isoenzymes produced at the two polymorphic alcohol dehydrogenase loci account for the differences in enzyme electrophoretic patterns observed among individuals. Some of these variant isoenzymes exhibit widely different kinetic properties, and this may account for the 2- to 3-fold variation in alcohol elimination rate among individuals. Since the protein sequence of several of the alcohol dehydrogenase subunits has been determined and several of the alcohol dehydrogenase genes has been cloned, some of the structural changes which give rise to differences in catalytic and electrophoretic properties are now known. Genetic polymorphism also occurs at the aldehyde dehydrogenase gene locus which encodes the mitochondrial low Km for acetaldehyde aldehyde dehydrogenase isoenzyme. The variant isoenzyme exhibits little or no catalytic activity. Individuals with this “null” variant have higher than normal blood acetaldehyde levels and exhibit an alcohol-flush reaction which appears to be a deterrent to heavy drinking and alcoholism. Since epidemiological surveys have demonstrated genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse and alcoholism, it is reasonable to suppose that the polymorphism of either alcohol dehydrogenase or aldehyde dehydrogenase might be one of the underlying biological factors contributing to the inherited nature of alcoholism.