The involvement of human cytochrome P450 (CYP) 2E1 in the hydroxylation of 4-nitrophenol (4NP) to 4-nitrocatechol (4NC) has been investigated using cDNA expression and liver microsomal kinetic and inhibitor techniques. 4NP hydroxylation by human liver microsomes and cDNA-expressed human CYP2E1 exhibited Michaelis-Menten kinetics; the respective apparent Km values were 30 +/- 7 and 21 microM. Mutual competitive inhibition was observed for 4NP and chlorzoxazone (CZ) (an alternative human CYP2E1 substrate) in liver microsomes, with close similarities between the calculated apparent Km and Ki values for each individual compound. 4NP and CZ hydroxylase activities in microsomes from 18 liver donors varied to a similar extent (3.3- and 3.0-fold, respectively) and 4NP hydroxylase activity correlated significantly (rs > or = 0.75, P < 0.005) with both CZ hydroxylation and immunoreactive CYP2E1 content. The prototypic CYP2E1 inhibitor, diethyldithiocarbamate, was a potent inhibitor of 4NC formation and decreased 4NP hydroxylation by cDNA-expressed CYP2E1 and human liver microsomes in parallel. Probes for other human CYP isoforms namely (alpha-naphthoflavone, coumarin, sulphaphenazole, quinidine, troleandomycin and mephenytoin) caused < 15% inhibition of liver microsomal 4NP hydroxylation. These data confirm that, as in animal species, 4NP hydroxylation is catalysed largely by CYP2E1 in human liver and 4NP may therefore be used as an in vitro substrate probe for the human enzyme.