- Chenopods synthesize betaine by a two-step oxidation of choline: choline --> betaine aldehyde --> betaine. Both oxidation reactions are carried out by isolated spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.) chloroplasts in darkness and are promoted by light. The mechanism of betaine aldehyde oxidation was investigated with subcellular fractions from spinach leaf protoplasts. The chloroplast stromal fraction contained a specific pyridine nucleotide-dependent betaine aldehyde dehydrogenase (about 150 to 250 nanomoles per milligram chlorophyll per hour) which migrated as one isozyme on native polyacrylamide gels stained for enzyme activity. The cytosol fraction contained a minor isozyme of betaine aldehyde dehydrogenase. Leaves of pea (Pisum sativum L.), a species that lacks betaine, had no betaine aldehyde dehydrogenase isozymes. The specific activity of betaine aldehyde dehydrogenase rose three-fold in spinach plants grown at 300 millimolar NaCl; both isozymes contributed to the increase. Stimulation of betaine aldehyde oxidation in illuminated spinach chloroplasts was due to a thylakoid activity which was sensitive to catalase; this activity occurred in pea as well as spinach, and so appears to be artifactual. We conclude that in vivo, betaine aldehyde is oxidized in both darkness and light by the dehydrogenase isozymes, although some flux via a light-dependent, H(2)O(2)-mediated reaction cannot be ruled out.