3-Methylindole (3MI) is a highly selective pneumotoxicant that is present in abundant amounts (as high as 1.4 mug/cigarette) in cigarette smoke. Several human cytochrome P450 enzymes that are expressed in lung, such as CYP1A1, CYP2F1, CYP2A13, and CYP4B1, catalyze the dehydrogenation of 3MI to the reactive intermediate 3-methyleneindolenine, which alkylates DNA and induces cell death through apoptosis. In addition, 3MI potently damages DNA at low concentrations (observable at 0.1 muM). However, it seemed possible that 3MI could induce the levels of P450 enzymes, so transcription and translation of 1A1 and 2F1 genes were measured in primary normal human bronchial epithelial cells. In this study, 3MI-induced DNA damage at the 10 muM concentration was ameliorated when P450 turnover was inactivated with the cytochrome P450 suicide substrate inhibitor 1-aminobenzotriazole. Thus, the observed DNA damage was cytochrome P450-dependent. Quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction analysis revealed both concentration- and time-dependent increases in CYP1A1 and CYP2F1 transcription by the same 3MI concentrations that damaged DNA. Aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) activation lead to CYP1A1 induction. Treatment with 3MI in combination with the AhR antagonist alpha-naphthoflavone prevented 3MI-mediated CYP1A1 induction, indicating that the induction was AhR-dependent. Conversely, CYP2F1 induction did not appear to require activation of AhR. These intriguing findings show that not only is induction of 1A1 and 2F1 caused by 3MI metabolites, rather than 3MI itself, but transcriptional activation of these pulmonary genes occurs through disparate mechanisms. Thus, the induction process, and subsequent increased bioactivation of 3MI to toxic intermediates, is a facile process that might enhance the acute toxicity and/or mutagenicity of this chemical.