2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) and related environmental pollutants exert most of their adverse effects via the aryl hydrocarbon or dioxin receptor (AhR). While most potent agonists of the AhR are of synthetic origin, an increasing number of natural compounds is now recognized as receptor agonists. Our findings demonstrate that some tryptanthrin derivatives biosynthesized in incubations of Candida lipolytica with tryptophan and anthranilic acid or its derivatives activate the AhR measured as induction of cytochrome P4501A1 mRNA and protein in rat hepatocytes in primary culture. The specificity of the inducing effect of tryptanthrins was demonstrated in gel retardation experiments in Hepa-1 mouse hepatoma cells using an oliogonucleotide comprising the sequence of the dioxin-responsive element. Furthermore, unidentified AhR agonists were formed in incubations of rat feces with a minimal medium supplemented with tryptophan. It is suggested that the receptor may be part of a defense system protecting higher organisms from secondary tryptophan-derived metabolites formed by the microflora of the host or its environment.