Previous studies indicated that two prototypic PAH, benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P) and 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene (DMBA), suppress the developing immune system by inducing apoptosis in bone marrow pre-B lymphocytes. In bone marrow cultures consisting of pre-B cells growing on bone marrow stromal cell monolayers, pre-B cell apoptosis was shown to be dependent on the aryl hydrocarbon receptor/transcription factor (AhR) expressed in stromal cells. However, it was not determined if AhR activation alone is sufficient or if DMBA metabolism is required for induction of a stromal cell-derived apoptosis signal. To address these issues we assessed: 1) the ability of poorly metabolized AhR ligands to induce pre-B cell apoptosis and 2) the capacity for and the mechanism through which an early DMBA metabolite induces pre-B cell apoptosis. Three poorly metabolized AhR ligands, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, 3,3',4,4',5-pentachlorobiphenyl, and 3,3',4,4'-tetrachlorobiphenyl failed to induce pre-B cell apoptosis in bone marrow cultures, indicating that AhR activation alone is not sufficient to induce apoptosis and suggesting a role for PAH metabolism in induction of an apoptosis signal. Consistent with this hypothesis, DMBA-3, 4-dihydrodiol, an early DMBA metabolite, induced significant pre-B cell apoptosis. The ability of DMBA-3,4-dihydrodiol to activate the AhR, inhibition of DMBA-3,4-dihydrodiol-induced apoptosis by alpha-naphthoflavone, and the significantly lower levels of DMBA-3, 4-dihydrodiol-induced apoposis in pre-B cell populations maintained on AhR(-) stromal cells strongly support a role for the AhR in DMBA-3,4-dihydrodiol-induced apoptosis. Of two DMBA-metabolizing enzymes evaluated, CYP1A1 and CYP1B1, the latter appeared to be the more likely to play a role in DMBA-induced apoptosis. These data confirm a role for the AhR in PAH-induced pre-B cell apoptosis, indicate a role for DMBA metabolism, and suggest a feedback loop in which at least one product of DMBA metabolism augments AhR signaling, leading to induction of an apoptosis stimulus.