The phytotoxicity of formaldehyde for spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum L.), tobacco plants (Nicotiana tabacum L. cv Bel B and Bel W3), and soybean (Glycine max L.) cell-suspension cultures was found to be low enough to allow metabolic studies. Spider plant shoots were exposed to 7.1 [mu]L L-1 (8.5 mg m-3) gaseous [14C]-formaldehyde over 24 h. Approximately 88% of the recovered radioactivity was plant associated and was found to be incorporated into organic acids, amino acids, free sugars, and lipids as well as cell-wall components. Similar results were obtained upon feeding [14C]formaldehyde from aqueous solution to aseptic soybean cell-suspension cultures. Serine and phosphatidylcholine were identified as major metabolic products. Spider plant enzyme extracts contained two NAS+-dependent formaldehyde dehydrogenase activities with molecular mass values of about 129 and 79 kD. Only the latter enzyme activity required glutathione as an obligatory second cofactor. It had an apparent Km value of 30 [mu]M for formaldehyde and an isoelectric point at pH 5.4. Total cell-free dehydrogenase activity corresponded to 13 [mu]g formaldehyde oxidized h-1 g-1 leaf fresh weight. Glutathione-dependent formaldehyde dehydrogenases were also isolated from shoots and leaves of Equisetum telmateia and from cell-suspension cultures of wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) and maize (Zea mays L.). The results obtained are consistent with the concept of indoor air decontamination with common room plants such as the spider plant. Formaldehyde appears to be efficiently detoxified by oxidation and subsequent C1 metabolism.