To better characterize the precise cellular distribution of CYP1A gene products in man, we have undertaken Northern-blot and in situ hybridization analyses of CYP1A expression in human liver. Using riboprobes transcribed from both CYP1A1 and CYP1A2 complementary DNAs to probe a series of Northern blots of 23 human liver messenger RNA samples, CYP1A1 expression was demonstrated in 11 samples and CYP1A2 expression was evident in 22 samples. The level of expression of both CYP1A enzymes in these livers demonstrated marked variability. The CYP1A1 and CYP1A2 riboprobes were then used for in situ hybridization localization of CYP1A1/1A2 messenger RNA sequences on paraffin-embedded, formalin-fixed human liver sections. These studies demonstrated that both CYP1A1 and CYP1A2 messenger RNAs are distributed nonuniformly across the human liver acinus, with levels highest in hepatocytes surrounding terminal hepatic venules and intercalated veins. Immunohistochemistry with an anti-rabbit CYP1A1 serum demonstrated a corresponding distribution for the translated CYP1A proteins. In situ hybridization analysis was also performed on sections of hepatocellular carcinoma, demonstrating a significant down-regulation in CYP1A expression. Functional studies using the activation of the food-derived heterocyclic amine MeIQ (2-amino-3,4-dimethylimadazo [4,5-f] quinoline) to a mutagen in the Ames test as an indicator of CYP1A expression confirmed this down-regulation. These results demonstrate heterogeneity of hepatic CYP1A expression both between individuals and in different acinar zones. This variation in expression may be of significance in assessing cell specific toxicities of various drugs and carcinogens.