The aryl hydrocarbon (Ah) receptor has occupied the attention of toxicologists for over two decades. Interest arose from the early observation that this soluble protein played key roles in the adaptive metabolic response to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and in the toxic mechanism of halogenated dioxins and dibenzofurans. More recent investigations have provided a fairly clear picture of the primary adaptive signaling pathway, from agonist binding to the transcriptional activation of genes involved in the metabolism of xenobiotics. Structure-activity studies have provided an understanding of the pharmacology of this receptor; recombinant DNA approaches have identified the enhancer sequences through which this factor regulates gene expression; and functional analysis of cloned cDNAs has allowed the characterization of the major signaling components in this pathway. Our objective is to review the Ah receptor's role in regulation of xenobiotic metabolism and use this model as a framework for understanding the less well-characterized mechanism of dioxin toxicity. In addition, it is hoped that this information can serve as a model for future efforts to understand an emerging superfamily of related signaling pathways that control biological responses to an array of environmental stimuli.