Metabolic activation and DNA adduct formation of the carcinogenic aromatic hydrocarbon dibenzo[a,l]pyrene (DBP) was investigated in human mammary carcinoma MCF-7 cells and human cytochrome P450 (CYP) 1B1-expressing Chinese hamster V79 cells in culture. It has been shown that DBP is metabolically activated to DNA-binding diol epoxides both in vitro and in vivo. To further establish the role of human CYP1B1 in the activation of DBP, both cell lines were cotreated with DBP and a selective chemical inhibitor of CYP1B1, 2,4,3' ,5'-tetramethoxy-stilbene (TMS). Results from DBP-DNA adduct analyses revealed the complete inhibition of DNA binding when cells were cotreated with DBP and TMS in comparison to DBP alone. Inactivation of CYP1B1 by TMS was also demonstrated through a decrease in the 7-ethoxyresorufin O-deethylase (EROD) activity in microsomes isolated from these cells. Emodin, 3-methyl-1,6,8-trihydroxyanthraquinone, an active ingredient of an herb, has been recently shown of being able to induce CYP1 gene expression. Examination of human CYP1B1 induction and EROD activity confirmed an increase in protein levels upon cotreatment with emodin and DBP. Despite increases in protein levels and enzyme activity, there was no significant change in DBP-DNA binding levels at very low substrate concentrations (17 nM). The data obtained in this study emphasize the central role of CYP1B1 in the activation of DBP in human cells in culture.