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Parkinson's disease (PD) is a heterogeneous movement disorder characterized by progressive degeneration of dopamine neurons in substantia nigra. We have previously presented genetic evidence for the possible involvement of alcohol and aldehyde dehydrogenases (ADH; ALDH) by identifying genetic variants in ADH1C and ADH4 that associate with PD. The absence of the corresponding mRNA species in the brain led us to the hypothesis that one cause of PD could be defects in the defense systems against toxic aldehydes in the gastrointestinal tract. We investigated cellular expression of Adh1, Adh3, Adh4 and Aldh1 mRNA along the rodent GI tract. Using oligonucleotide in situ hybridization probes, we were able to resolve the specific distribution patterns of closely related members of the ADH family. In both mice and rats, Adh4 is transcribed in the epithelium of tongue, esophagus and stomach, whereas Adh1 was active from stomach to rectum in mice, and in duodenum, colon and rectum in rats. Adh1 and Adh4 mRNAs were present in the mouse gastric mucosa in nonoverlapping patterns, with Adh1 in the gastric glands and Adh4 in the gastric pits. Aldh1 was found in epithelial cells from tongue to jejunum in rats and from esophagus to colon in mice. Adh3 hybridization revealed low mRNA levels in all tissues investigated. The distribution and known physiological functions of the investigated ADHs and Aldh1 are compatible with a role in a defense system, protecting against alcohols, aldehydes and formaldehydes as well as being involved in retinoid metabolism.