A point mutation in the mRNA of NADP(H): quinone oxidoreductase 1 (NQO1, DT-diaphorase) is believed to be responsible for reduced enzyme activity in the adenocarcinoma BE cell line. The present study examined nine cultured human non-cancerous fibroblast cell strains, five of which were from members of a single cancer-prone family, which demonstrated widely varying activity levels of DT-diaphorase (41 - 3462 nmol min-1 mg-1 protein), to determine if genetic alteration of the NQO1 or NOQ2 gene was involved in determining enzyme activity. All cell strains expressed NQO1 and NQO2 mRNA as measured by a quantitative polymerase chain reaction amplification technique. No relationship was found between the level of mRNA expressed and the enzyme activity in the cells. Sequencing of the entire complementary DNA from the cell strains revealed only a single base substitution at nucleotide 609 in one allele encoding NQO1 in every cell strain from members of the cancer-prone family, except for one cell strain which expressed only the T at nucleotide 609 in both alleles. Subsequent examination of genomic DNA from 44 individuals revealed that this base substitution is present in approximately 50% of the population. The presence of the T at nucleotide 609 in the NQO1 locus does not appear to be directly causal for altered DT-diaphorase activity.