The conversion of xanthine dehydrogenase to a free radical producing oxidase is an important component of oxygen-mediated tissue injury. Current assays for these enzymes are of limited sensitivity, making it difficult to analyze activities in organ biopsies or cultured cells. The xanthine oxidase-catalyzed conversion of pterin (2-amino-4-hydroxypteridine) to isoxanthopterin provides the basis for a fluorometric assay which is 100-500 times more sensitive than the traditional spectrophotometric assay of urate formation from xanthine. Enzyme activity as low as 0.1 pmol min-1 ml-1 can be measured with the fluorometric pterin assay. Xanthine oxidase is assayed in the presence of pterin only, while combined xanthine dehydrogenase plus oxidase activity is determined with methylene blue which replaces NAD+ as an electron acceptor. The relative proportions and specific activities of xanthine oxidase and dehydrogenase determined by the fluorometric pterin assay are comparable with the spectrophotometric measurement of activities present in rat liver, intestine, kidney, and plasma. The assay has been successfully applied to brain, human kidney, and cultured mammalian cells, where xanthine dehydrogenase and oxidase activities are too low to detect spectrophotometrically. © 1989.