The molecular basis for the use of caffeine (CA; 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine) as a probe for specific human cytochromes P450 has been investigated. The CA 1-, 3- and 7-demethylations (to form theobromine, paraxanthine and theophylline, respectively) all followed biphasic kinetics in human liver microsomes. Mean apparent Km values for the high- and low-affinity components of the demethylations ranged from 0.13-0.31 mM and 19.2-30.0 mM, respectively. cDNA-expressed CYP1A2 catalysed all three CA demethylations, and the apparent Km for CA 3-demethylation (the major metabolic pathway in humans) by the expressed enzyme was similar to the Km for the high-affinity liver microsomal CA 3-demethylase. IC50 values for inhibition of the CA demethylations by a-naphthoflavone were similar for both expressed CYP1A2 and the high-affinity microsomal demethylases. Moreover, CA was a competitive inhibitor of expressed CYP1A2 catalysed phenacetin 0-deethylation, with the apparent Km (0.080 mM) closely matching the apparent Km (0.082 mM) for CA 3-demethylation by the expressed enzyme. Expressed CYP1A1 was additionally shown to catalyse the 3-demethylation of CA, although activity was lower than that observed for CYP1A2. While these data indicate that CYP1A2 is responsible for the high-affinity component of human liver CA 3-demethylation, two limitations associated with the use of CA as an in vitro probe for CYP1A2 activity have been identified: (i) CA 3-demethylation reflects hepatic CYP1A2 activity only at appropriately low substrate concentrations; and (ii) CA is a non-specific CYP1A substrate and CYP1A1 may therefore contribute to CA 3-demethylase activity in tissues in which it is expressed. An anti-CYP3A antibody essentially abolished the 8-hydroxylation of CA to form trimethyluric acid, suggesting formation of this metabolite may potentially serve as a marker of CYP3A isozyme(s) activity.