Glycine N-methyltransferase (GNMT) is inhibited by 5-methyltetrahydrofolate polyglutamate in vitro. It is believed to play a regulatory role in the synthesis de novo of methyl groups. We have used the amino-acid-defined diet of Walzem and Clifford [(1988) J. Nutr. 118, 1089-1096] to determine whether folate deficiency in vivo would affect GNMT activity, as predicted by the studies in vitro. Weanling male rats were fed on the folate-deficient diet or a folate-supplemented diet pair-fed to the deficient group. A third group was fed on the folate-supplemented diet ad libitum. Development of folate deficiency rapidly resulted in decreased levels of S-adenosylmethionine (SAM) and elevation of S-adenosylhomocysteine (SAH). The ratios of SAM to SAH were 1.8, 2.7 and 1.5 in the deficient group for weeks 2, 3 and 4 of the experiment, and the values were 9.7, 7.1 and 8.9 for the pair-fed control group and 10.3, 8.8 and 8.0 for the control group ad libitum fed. The activity of GNMT was significantly higher in the deficient group than in either of the two control groups at each time period. This was not due to increased amounts of GNMT protein, but reflected an increase in specific enzyme activity. Levels of folate in both the cytosol and mitochondria were severely lowered after only 2 weeks on the diet. The distribution of folate coenzymes was also affected by the deficiency, which resulted in a marked increase in the percentage of tetrahydrofolate polyglutamates in both cytosol and mitochondria and a very large decrease in cytosolic 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. The increased GNMT activity is therefore consistent with decreased folate levels and decreased inhibition of enzyme activity.