PAH-CALUX, an optimized bioassay for AhR-mediated hazard identification of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) as individual compounds and in complex mixtures

Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Oct 15;47(20):11651-9. doi: 10.1021/es403810w. Epub 2013 Sep 25.


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) represent a class of ubiquitously occurring environmental compounds that are implicated in a wide range of toxicological effects. Routine measurement of PAH contamination generally involves chemical analytical analysis of a selected group of representatives, for example, EPA-16, which may result in underestimation of the PAH-related toxicity of a sample. Many high molecular weight PAHs are known ligands of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), a nuclear receptor that mediates toxic effects related to these compounds. Making use of this property we developed a PAH CALUX assay, a mammalian, H4IIe- cell-based reporter assay for the hazard identification of total PAH mixtures. The PAH CALUX reporter cell line allows for specific, rapid (4 h exposure time) and reliable quantification of AhR-induced luciferase induction relative to benzo[a]pyrene (BaP), which is used as a positive reference PAH congener. Full dose response relationships with inductions over 100-fold were reached within only 2 h of exposure to BaP. The PAH CALUX is highly sensitive, that is, using a 4 h exposure time, a limit of detection (LOD) of 5.2 × 10(-11) M BaP was achieved, and highly accurate, that is, a repeatability of 5.9% and a reproducibility of 6.6% were established. Screening of a selection of PAHs that were prioritized by the European Union and/or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that the PAH CALUX bioassay has a high predictability, particularly for carcinogenic PAHs. Experiments with synthetic mixtures and reference materials containing complex PAH mixtures show the suitability of the assay for these types of applications. Moreover, the presented results suggest that application of the PAH CALUX will result in a lower risk of underestimation of the toxicity of a sample than chemical analytical approaches that focus on a limited set of prioritized compounds.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Benzo(a)pyrene / analysis
  • Biological Assay / methods*
  • Cell Line
  • Complex Mixtures / chemistry*
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis
  • Genes, Reporter
  • Luciferases / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / analysis*
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon / metabolism*
  • Time Factors


  • Complex Mixtures
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon
  • Benzo(a)pyrene
  • Luciferases