CYP3A4 is the major human cytochrome P-450 in a superfamily of heme-thiolate proteins that catalyze the oxidation of numerous lipophilic compounds. In this investigation, we report that CYP3A4 requires a phenolic function for ortho hydroxylation of estradiol and mono-O-demethylated methoxychlor and that CYP3A4 aromatic hydroxylation in general may be dependent on the presence of a free phenolic group. Indeed, when methoxyls were present instead of phenolic hydroxyls, CYP3A4 essentially failed to catalyze ortho hydroxylation. By contrast, of eight additional cDNA-expressed P-450s (CYP1A1, 1A2, 2A6, 2B6, 2C8, 2C9, 2D6, and 2E1) examined, only CYP1A2 and CYP2B6 could catalyze ortho hydroxylation of [o-3H]methoxychlor (7.2 and 14.6 pmol/90 min/pmol P-450, respectively), indicating that these isoforms do not require a phenolic hydroxyl for aromatic hydroxylation and that methoxyls do not sterically hinder catalysis by these CYPs. However, with [o-3H]mono-O-demethylated methoxychlor, containing a phenolic group, five isoforms (CYP1A2, 2B6, 2D6, 2E1, and 3A4) supported ortho hydroxylation. Of these, CYP3A4 exhibited by far the highest rate of hydroxylation at 87.8 pmol/90 min/pmol P-450. Further studies with [2-(3)H]estradiol 3-methyl ether and with [2-(3)H]estradiol revealed a similar and dramatic augmentation of CYP3A4-mediated C2 hydroxylase activity of approximately 75-fold by the presence of the phenolic group in the 3-position. The mechanism of augmentation by the phenolic hydroxyl does not appear to involve the acidic proton of estradiol, since CYP3A4-catalyzed estradiol 2-hydroxylation and testosterone 6-beta-hydroxylation were diminished to an equal extent when incubations were performed at increasing buffer pH values from 7 to 9. Both estradiol and its 3-methoxy derivative bound with similar affinity to cDNA-expressed, microsomal CYP3A4: spectral dissociation constants were 270 and 370 microM, respectively, and both compounds exhibited type I spectra. Thus, the disparities in aromatic hydroxylation rates between compounds containing phenolic hydroxyls and those with methoxyls cannot be explained by differences in their binding affinities. To explain the mode via which the phenolic hydroxyl facilitates ortho hydroxylation, a mechanism in which the phenolic moiety attacks the iron-oxo double bond of CYP3A4, resulting in oxygen transfer to the ortho position, is proposed. It is anticipated that these findings will assist in forecasting the CYP-mediated metabolic fate of phenolic compounds.