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The environmentally occurring polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) benzo[c]phenanthrene (B[c]PH) is a weak carcinogen in rodents. In contrast, the dihydrodiol-epoxides of B[c]PH are among the most carcinogenic PAH metabolites tested so far. In rodents, B[c]PH is predominantly metabolized to B[c]PH-5,6-dihydrodiol (B[c]PH-5,6-DH) and only to a minor extent to B[c]PH-3,4-DH, the proximate precursor of the highly potent ultimate carcinogen, B[c]PH-3,4-DH-1,2-epoxide. This might explain why in rodents B[c]PH is a weak carcinogen. However, little is known about human metabolism of B[c]PH. Using microsomal preparations from human liver and lung, we investigated the metabolic activation of B[c]PH. In contrast to the findings in experimental animals, human liver microsomes predominantly generated B[c]PH-3,4-DH and only to a minor extent B[c]PH-5,6-DH. Only one lung tissue sample was found to be metabolically active, producing B[c]PH-5,6-DH together with small amounts of B[c]PH-3,4-DH. Catalytic activities known to be associated with specific cytochrome P450 (P450) enzyme activities were determined and correlated with the spectrum of B[c]PH metabolites. The results indicate that B[c]PH-DH formation in human liver is mainly mediated by P450 1A2. Studies with P450 enzyme selective inhibitors confirmed these findings. Further support was obtained using preparations of the respective human recombinant P450 enzymes expressed in Escherichia coli and yeast. In addition to P450 1A2, P450 1B1 effectively mediated B[c]PH-metabolism. The umu-assay for induction of SOS repair response in Salmonella typhimurium TA 1535 pSK 1002 containing a umuC-lacZ reporter gene was used to study metabolic generation of genotoxic metabolites from B[c]PH-DHs in human microsomal preparations. B[c]PH-3,4-DH was activated by human liver microsomes to a potent genotoxic agent. Taken together, the results clearly demonstrate that human liver microsomes can effectively catalyze the biotransformation of B[c]PH into highly genotoxic metabolites. The results provide evidence that B[c]PH should be considered a potentially potent carcinogen in humans, and that rodent models may underestimate the risk.