A full-length cDNA encoding human cytochrome P450 2E1 was expressed in mammalian cell lines using the vaccinia virus expression system. Immunoblot analysis showed that the expressed protein reacted with a polyclonal antibody against rat 2E1 and comigrated with P450 2E1 from human liver microsomes. P450 2E1 expressed in Hep G2 cells, a human cell line which contains both cytochrome b5 and NADPH:P450 oxidoreductase, was able to metabolize several known P450 2E1 substrates: N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), N-nitrosomethylbenzylamine (NMBzA), p-nitrophenol, phenol, and acetaminophen. Apparent Km and Vmax values for NDMA demethylation were 22 microM and 173 pmol/min/mg microsomal protein, respectively. P450 2E1 expressed in TK-143 cells, which do not contain b5, displayed Km and Vmax values of 31 microM and 34 pmol/min/mg microsomal protein, respectively. Incorporation of purified rat liver b5 into TK-143 microsomes increased the Vmax 2.2-fold and decreased the Km to 22 microM. Addition of b5 to Hep G2 microsomes resulted in a 1.6-fold increase in Vmax, but showed no effect on the Km. P450 2E1 expressed in Hep G2 cells was shown to metabolize NMBzA with a Km of 47 microM and Vmax of 213 pmol/min/mg microsomal protein. Addition of b5 lowered the Km to 27 microM, but had no effect on Vmax. These results demonstrate conclusively that P450 2E1 is responsible for the low Km forms of NDMA demethylase and NMBzA debenzylase observed in liver microsomes and that these activities are affected by cytochrome b5.