A glutathione-dependent formaldehyde dehydrogenase (class III alcohol dehydrogenase) has been characterized from Arabidopsis thulium. This plant enzyme exhibits kinetic and molecular properties in common with the class III forms from mammals, with a Km, for S-hydroxymethylglutathione of 1.4 μM, an anodic electrophoretic mobility (PI: 5.3–5.6) and a cross-reaction with anti-(rat class III alcohol dehydrogenase) antibodies. The enzyme structure, deduced from the cDNA sequence, fits into the complex system of alcohol dehydrogenases and shows that all life forms share the class III protein type. The corresponding mRNA is 1.4 kb and present in all plant organs; a single copy of the gene is found in the genome. The class III structural variability is different from that of the ethanol-active enzyme types in both vertebrates (class I) and plants (class P), although class P conserves more of the class III properties than class I does. Also the enzymatic properties differ between the two ethanol-active classes. Active-site variability and exchanges at essential residues (Leu/Gly57, Asp/Arg115) may explain the distinct kinetics. These patterns are consistent with two different metabolic roles for the ethanol-active enzymes, a more constant function, reduction of acetaldehyde during hypoxia, for class P, and a more variable function, the detoxication of alcohols and participation in metabolic conversions, for class I. A sequence motif, Pro-Xaa-Ile/Val-Xaa-Gly-His-Glu-Xaa-Xaa-Gly, common to all medium-chain alcohol dehydrogenases is defined.