Investigations with chemical inhibitors and with inhibitory antibodies specific for cytochrome P4501A-catalyzed ethoxyresorufin (ethoxyphenoxazone) O-deethylation and 2-acetylaminofluorene (N-2-fluorenylacetamide) ring hydroxylation indicated that cytochrome(s) P450 of the 1A subfamily was functionally expressed in human embryonic hepatic tissues at very early stages (days 50-60) of gestation. Lack of detectable capacity of hepatic microsomal enzymes to catalyze either N-hydroxylation of 2-acetylaminofluorene or O-demethylation of methoxyresorufin indicated that functional cytochrome P4501A2 is expressed minimally or negligibly in human embryonic hepatic tissues. By contrast, profound inhibition of the ring hydroxylation of 2-acetylaminofluorene and of the O-deethylation of ethoxyresorufin by 7,8-benzoflavone as well as by anti-cytochrome P4501A1 antibodies indicated the presence of significant levels of functional cytochrome P4501A1 in hepatic microsomes of human embryos. Using the reverse transcriptase-linked polymerase chain reaction with specific oligonucleotide primers, we also detected significant expression of cytochrome P4501A1 mRNA in human embryonic livers. Polymerase chain reaction amplification, cloning and sequencing of the corresponding cDNA provided evidence that the cytochrome P4501A1 mRNA expressed in human embryonic tissues was identical to that expressed in adult human tissues. The results of the study have important implications in terms of the embryotoxic effects of chemicals that are known to be substrates, inhibitors or inducers of cytochrome P4501A1 and to which pregnant women are exposed.