In vitro techniques have been utilized to investigate the microsomal enzymes involved in the metabolism of lauric acid and to establish conditions in which it can be used as a model substrate for both cytochrome P450 4A and cytochrome P450 2E1 in human liver microsomes. Studies of enzyme kinetics of lauric acid omega-hydroxylation in human liver microsomes indicated the involvement of more than one enzyme in this pathway, a relatively low Km enzyme with a Km of 22 microM +/- 12 (n = 8) and a high Km enzyme with a Km an order of magnitude higher (550 microM +/- 310, n = 7). The apparent Vmax for this component correlated with the rate of cyclosporin metabolism and was highly sensitive to ketoconazole inhibition. These results indicated that this enzyme was a member of the 3A subfamily. The activity associated with the low Km enzyme (P450 4A) did not correlate with P450 1A2, 2A6, 2C9/8, 2C19, 2D6, 2E1, or 3A activities in a bank of human liver microsomes and was not appreciably inhibited by ketoconazole, furafylline, quinidine, sulfaphenazole, or diethyldithiocarbamate (DDC). Lauric acid omega-1 hydroxylation demonstrated simple Michaelis-Menten kinetics in each of the human liver microsomal samples examined, with a Km of 130 microM +/- 42 (n = 8). This activity was highly correlated with chlorzoxazone 6-hydroxylation in human liver microsomes (r = 0.98, n = 14, p < 0.001) and was inhibited by both DDC and chlorzoxazone. Additionally, rats treated with the P450 2E1 inducer isoniazid demonstrated a 3-fold increase in lauric acid omega-1 hydroxylation relative to the control group. Thus, the lauric acid hydroxylation assay, at a substrate concentration of 20 microM, appears to be an effective and specific P450 model substrate capable of determining simultaneously P450 4A and P450 2E1 related activities in hepatic microsomal samples.