Sulfate conjugation is an important pathway in the biotransformation of drugs and neurotransmitters. The thermolabile (TL) form of the enzyme phenol sulfotransferase (PST) catalyzes the sulfation of catecholamine neurotransmitters and drugs such as methyldopa and acetaminophen. Platelet TL PST activity was measured in blood samples from 232 individuals in 49 nuclear families. Correlations ranged from 0.43 to 0.45 for parent-offspring pairs and from 0.44 to 0.47 for siblings. Mother-father correlations were not significantly different from zero. Although evidence was not unequivocal, both segregation and commingling analyses provided some support for a major gene influence on TL PST activity, with other variation due to polygenic background. In both sets of analyses, however, support for a major gene hypothesis depended upon skewness in the TL PST activity distribution. A polygenic model with high heritability (0.77) was most strongly supported with the log transformed data. These results confirm and extend a previous report of high heritability of TL PST based on a study of twins. In addition, our results raise the possibility of a major gene effect on this important catecholamine- and drug-metabolizing enzyme--a possibility that can now be evaluated using biochemical techniques.