The hepatic enzymes that catalyze drug oxidations and the reductive metabolism of steroid hormones to 5alpha-derivatives are localized in membranes of the endoplasmic reticulum. Phenobarbital, which exacerbates acute intermittent porphyria in man, induces drug-oxidizing enzymes in liver. Additionally, patients in whome the primary gene defect (uroporphyrinogen-I-synthetase deficiency) of acute intermittent porphyria has become clinically expressed have low levels of hepatic steroid delta4-5alpha-reductase activity. This 5alpha-reductase deficiency in acute intermittent porphyria leads to the disproportionate generation of 5beta-steroid metabolites from precursor hormones; such steroid metabolites have significant porphyria-inducing action experimentally. In this study the effects of phenobarbital on drug oxidation and steroid 5alpha-reduction in man were examined to determine if this drug could produce changes in steroid 5alpha-reductase activity which mimicked those seen in patients with acute intermittent porphyria. Metabolic studies with [14C]-testosterone and 11beta-[3H]hydroxyandrostenedione were carried out in five normal volunteers. In all five subjects phenobarbital administration (2 mg/kg/per day for 21 days) enhanced plasma removal of the test drugs antipyrine and phenylbutazone as expected; but in four subjects phenobarbital also substantially depressed 5alpha-metabolite formation from [14C]testosterone and resulted in a pattern of hormone biotransformation characterized by a high ratio of 5beta/5alpha-metabolite formation. Studies with 11beta-[3H]hydroxy-androstenedione in three subjects confirmed that phenobarbital produced this high 5beta/5alpha ratio of steroid metabolism by depressing 5alpha-reductase activity for steroid hormones in liver. The high ratio of 5beta/5alpha-metabolites formed in normals after drug treatment mimicks the high 5beta/5alpha-steroid metabolite ratio formed from endogenous hormones in acute intermittent porphyria. The proximate mechanism by which phenobarbital induces reciprocal changes in activities of the microsomal enzymes which catalyze drug oxidations and steroid 5alpha-reductions is not known. This action of phenobarbital raises the possibility, however, that certain drugs which provoke exacerbations of human porphyria may do so, in part, by producing deleterious shifts in the patterns of endogenous steroid hormone metabolism.