Cytochromes P450 are a large group of membrane-associated heme protein monooxygenases, most of which are responsible for metabolizing foreign compounds. Chemical carcinogens, which are ingested or absorbed into the body as inert forms, are metabolically activated by P450s to electrophilic metabolites capable of binding to and mutating DNA. Different P450 forms are responsible for activation of the various classes of chemical carcinogens including the arylamines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrosamines and aflatoxins. Thus, the cellular constituency and levels of P450s could determine the fate of a particular carcinogen and the risk of humans to exposure. To study the catalytic activities of human P450s, human P450 cDNAs were cloned and expressed into active enzymes using cultured cells. By both transient and stable cDNA expression systems, several human P450s were found to be capable of metabolically-activating the human hepatocarcinogen aflatoxin B1. These cDNA expression systems can also be used to determine whether an unknown chemical will be activated by a human P450 and thus be toxic or mutagenic in humans. To assess the extent of interindividual variation in P450 expression, probes developed from P450 cDNAs are being used to quantify levels of P450 mRNAs in various human tissues. Studies using RNase protection revealed that the closely related CYP2B6 and CYP2B7 mRNAs could be independently quantified in liver and lung, respectively. This procedure can be used to examine expression of different P450 genes in banks of human tissue specimens.