Cytochrome P450 (P450) 1A2 provides an interesting paradigm for inter-individual differences in the metabolism of pro-carcinogens. The enzyme is known to vary 40-fold among individuals and may contribute to cancers caused by heterocyclic amines and other chemicals. Rat and human P450 1A2 are known to be 75% identical and were compared for several catalytic activities. The human enzyme was an order of magnitude more efficient in the N-hydroxylation of two heterocyclic amines. Further, the levels of P450 1A2 expressed in human livers show a 40-fold variation, with some as high as 0.25 nmol P450 1A2 per milligram microsomal protein. Some human liver samples are more active (than those isolated from polychlorinated biphenyl-treated rats) in the activation of heterocyclic amines. A bacterial genotoxicity assay has been developed in which human P450 1A2 and NADPH-P450 reductase are expressed within Escherichia coli and bacterial mutants can be assayed using reversion to lac prototrophy. A random mutagenesis strategy for human P450 1A2 has been developed and used to examine the changes in catalytic activity seen with many single-amino acid substitutions. These results may be of relevance in consideration of genetic polymorphisms. Further, the findings pose a challenge to molecular epidemiology effort in that results with one substrate do not necessarily predict those for others. Some dinitropyrenes are P450 1A2 substrates but others are not. 6-Nitrochrysene can be activated by human P450 1A2 but the (mono) nitropyrenes examined were not; these were oxidized by P450 3A4 instead.