Metabolic pathways of the mutagen 2-amino-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline (MeIQx) remain incompletely characterized in humans. In this study, the metabolism of MeIQx was investigated in primary human hepatocytes. Six metabolites were characterized by UV and mass spectroscopy. Novel metabolites were additionally characterized by 1H NMR spectroscopy. The carcinogenic metabolite, 2-(hydroxyamino)-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline, which is formed by cytochrome P450 1A2 (P450 1A2), was found to be transformed into the N(2)-glucuronide conjugate, N(2)-(beta-1-glucosiduronyl)-2-(hydroxyamino)-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline. The phase II conjugates N(2)-(3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxalin-2-yl)sulfamic acid and N(2)-(beta-1-glucosiduronyl)-2-amino-3,8-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline, as well as the 7-oxo derivatives of MeIQx and N-desmethyl-MeIQx, 2-amino-3,8-dimethyl-6-hydro-7H-imidazo[4,5-f]quinoxalin-7-one (7-oxo-MeIQx), and 2-amino-6-hydro-8-methyl-7H-imidazo[4,5-f]quinoxalin-7-one (N-desmethyl-7-oxo-MeIQx), thought to be formed exclusively by the intestinal flora, were also identified. A novel metabolite was characterized as 2-amino-3-methylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline-8-carboxylic acid (IQx-8-COOH), and it was the predominant metabolite formed in hepatocytes exposed to MeIQx at levels approaching human exposure. IQx-8-COOH formation is catalyzed by P450 1A2. This metabolite is a detoxication product and does not induce umuC gene expression in Salmonella typhimurium strain NM2009. IQx-8-COOH is also the principal oxidation product of MeIQx excreted in human urine [Turesky, R., et al. (1998) Chem. Res. Toxicol. 11, 217-225]. Thus, P450 1A2 is involved in both the metabolic activation and detoxication of this procarcinogen in humans. Analogous metabolism experiments were conducted with hepatocytes of untreated rats and rats pretreated with the P450 inducer 3-methylcholanthrene. Unlike human hepatocytes, the rat cell preparations did not produce IQx-8-COOH but catalyzed the formation of 2-amino-3,8-dimethyl-5-hydroxyimidazo[4,5-f]quinoxaline as a major P450-mediated detoxication product. In conclusion, our results provide evidence of a novel MeIQx metabolism pathway in humans through P450 1A2-mediated C(8)-oxidation of MeIQx to form IQx-8-COOH. This biotransformation pathway has not been detected in experimental animal species. Considerable interspecies differences exist in the metabolism of MeIQx by P450s, which may affect the biological activity of this mutagen and must be considered when assessing human health risk.