Increasing evidence implicates deoxycholic acid (DCA) in the pathogenesis of cholesterol-rich gallbladder stones. However, relatively little is known about the activities of the two intestinal bacterial enzymes (cholylglycine hydrolase and cholic acid 7alpha-dehydroxylase) responsible for the deconjugation and subsequent dehydroxylation of conjugated cholic acid (CA), to form DCA. We, therefore, established optimal reaction conditions for measuring the activities of these two enzymes in vitro, and applied these conditions to the determination of the enzymes in caecal aspirates from six subjects undergoing clinically-indicated colonoscopy. With respect to cholylglycine hydrolase activity: zero order kinetics were found over 20 min at 37 degrees C (pH optimum 4.0), with Km and Vmax values of 1.66 mmol/l and 0.90 mmol CA min(-1) mg prot(-1), respectively. For cholic acid 7alpha-dehydroxylation: zero order kinetics were found over 7.5 min at 37 degrees C, under anaerobic conditions (pH optimum 8.0), with Km and Vmax values of 5.23 x 10(-8) mol/l and 1.88 x 10(-7) mol DCA min(-1) mg prot(-1), respectively. Applying these reaction conditions to the caecal aspirates, endogenous cholylglycine hydrolase activities ranged from 0.49 to 2.43 units (mg protein[-1] min[-1]) and CA 7alpha-dehydroxylase activities from 1.75 to 5.82 x 10(-7) units (mg protein[-1] min[-1]). This study is unique in assaying quantitatively both the deconjugation and dehydroxylation enzyme activities in human caecal samples--an essential first step to further studies of intestinal bacterial enzymes in the pathogenesis of cholesterol gallstone disease.