Primary steps in the metabolism of caffeine and theophylline are cleavage of methyl groups and/or hydroxylation at position 8, mediated by cytochromes P450. V79 Chinese hamster cells genetically engineered for stable expression of single forms of rat cytochromes P450IA1, P450IA2 and P450IIBI and human P450IA2 and rat liver epithelial cells expressing murine P450IA2 were used to overcome problems arising in the proper allocation of metabolic pathways to specific isoforms by conventional techniques. These cell lines were exposed to caffeine and/or theophylline, and concentrations of metabolites formed in the medium were determined by HPLC. Caffeine was metabolized by human, rat and murine P450IA2, resulting in the formation of four primary demethylated and hydroxylated metabolites. However, there were differences in the relative amounts of the metabolites. The human and the mouse P450IA2 isoforms predominantly mediated 3-demethylation of caffeine. The rat cytochrome P450IA2 mediated both 3-demethylation and 1-demethylation of caffeine to a similar extent. Theophylline was metabolized mainly via 8-hydroxylation. All cell lines tested were able to carry out this reaction, with highest activities in cell lines expressing rat or human P450IA2, or rat P450IA1. These results support the hypothesis that caffeine plasma clearance is a specific in vivo probe for determining human P450IA2 activity.