The mammalian aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) is a ligand-activated transcription factor that controls the expression of cytochrome P450 1A (CYP1A) genes in response to halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons such as 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). The natural ligand and normal physiologic function of this protein are as yet unknown. One approach to understanding AHR function and significance is to determine the evolutionary history of this receptor and of processes such as CYP1A induction that are controlled by the AHR in mammals. In these studies, AHR function was evaluated in representative cartilaginous fish (little skate, Raja erinacea) and jawless fish (sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus and Atlantic hagfish, Myxine glutinosa), using CYP1A induction as a model AHR-dependent response. Treatment of skate with beta-naphthoflavone (BNF) caused an 8-fold increase in hepatic ethoxyresorufin O-deethylase (EROD) activity as well as a 37-fold increase in the content of immunodetectable CYP1A protein. Evidence of CYP1A inducibility was also obtained for another cartilaginous fish, the smooth dogfish Mustelus canis. In contrast, hepatic EROD activity was not detected in untreated lamprey nor in lamprey treated with 3,3'4,4'-tetrachlorobiphenyl (TCB), a potent AHR agonist in teleosts. A possible CYP1A homolog was detected in lamprey hepatic microsomes by one of three antibodies to teleost CYP1A, but expression of this protein was not altered by TCB treatment. CYP1A protein and catalytic activity were measurable in hagfish, but neither was induced after treatment with TCB. These results suggest that the AHR-CYP1A signal transduction pathway is highly conserved in gnathostomes, but that there may be fundamental differences in AHR signaling or AHR-CYP1A coupling in agnathan fish. Agnathan fish such as hagfish and lamprey may be interesting model species for examining possible ancestral AHR functions not related to CYP1A regulation.