Sulfation is an important metabolic pathway in humans for xenobiotics, hormones and neurotransmitters, and is catalysed by the cytosolic sulfotransferase (SULT) enzymes. Phenol SULTs, especially SULT1A1, are particularly important in xenobiotic and drug metabolism because of their broad substrate specificity and extensive tissue distribution. A common variant SULT1A1 allozyme (SULT1A1*2) exists in the population, and is less stable than the wild-type SULT1A1*1. 4-Nitrophenol is widely used as a substrate for quantifying SULT1A1 activity. However, our kinetic experiments suggest that 4-nitrophenol is not an ideal substrate when determining SULT1A1 activity in human liver. Assays with a bank of 68 human liver cytosols revealed three distinct kinetic profiles for 4-nitrophenol sulfation in the population: linear, biphasic and inhibition. Sulfation of 4-nitrophenol by purified, recombinant SULT1A1*1 and SULT1A1*2 shows marked substrate inhibition, with inhibition at 4-nitrophenol concentrations greater than 4 and 10 microM, respectively. Furthermore, sulfation of 4-nitrophenol by purified recombinant SULT1B1 was significant at concentrations of 4-nitrophenol less than 10 microM. Western blots showed that the SULT1A1 levels in liver are highly variable between liver samples and that no correlation was observed between SULT1A1 activity and protein level in liver cytosols. However, a correlation between SULT1A1 activity and protein level was observed in human placental cytosols, where SULT1B1 is not expressed. We believe that in human liver other SULT isoforms (particularly SULT1B1) contribute to the sulfation of 4-nitrophenol. Therefore, 4-nitrophenol is not an ideal substrate with which to quantitate SULT1A1 activity in human liver tissue.