Sixty-one sterols and pentacyclic triterpenes have been isolated and characterized by chromatographic and spectral methods from Zea mays (corn). Several plant parts were examined; seed, pollen, cultured hypocotyl cells, roots, coleoptiles (sheaths), and blades. By studying reaction pathways and mechanisms on plants fed radiotracers ([2-14C]mevalonic acid, [2-14C]acetate, and [2-3H]acetate), and stable isotopes (D2O), we discovered that hydroxymethylglutaryl CoA reductase is not "the" rate-limiting enzyme of sitosterol production. Additionally, we observed an ontogenetic shift and kinetic isotope effect in sterol biosynthesis that was associated with the C-24 alkylation of the sterol side chain. Blades synthesized mainly 24α-ethyl-sterols, sheaths synthesized mainly 24-methyl-sterols, pollen possessed an interrupted sterol pathway, accumulating 24(28)-methylene-sterols, and germinating seeds were found to lack an active de novo pathway. Shoots, normally synthesizing (Z)-24(28)-ethylidine-cholesterol, after incubation with deuterated water, synthesized the rearranged double-bond isomer, stigmasta-5,23-dien-3β-ol. Examination of the mass spectrum and1H nuclear magnetic resonance spectrum of the deuterated 24-ethyl-sterol indicated the Bloch-Cornforth route originating with acetyl-CoA and passing through mevalonic acid to sterol was not operative at this stage of development. An alternate pathway giving rise to sterols is proposed.