Polychlorinated biphenyl congeners that are abundant in environmental samples, and known to induce hepatic monooxygenase isozymes in the P450IA gene subfamily in mammals, were examined for their ability to induce hepatic monooxygenase activity in scup, a marine teleost. Scup were dosed ip with 3,3',4,4'-tetrachlorobiphenyl (congener 77), 2,3,3',4,4'-pentachlorobiphenyl (congener 105), 2,3',4,4',5-pentachlorobiphenyl (congener 118), 2,2',3,4,4',5'-hexachlorobiphenyl (congener 138), 2,2',3,3',4,4'-hexachlorobiphenyl (congener 128), or beta-naphthoflavone and examined for increases in ethoxyresorufin O-deethylase (EROD) activity, immunodetectable cytochrome P450E (the EROD catalyst in scup), and in vitro translatable mRNA for P450E. Monooxygenase parameters were significantly induced only by 3,3',4,4'-tetrachlorobiphenyl (TCB). However, while translatable mRNA for P450E was induced at all doses (1, 5, and 10 mg/kg), EROD activity and P450E were decreased at the 5 and 10 mg/kg doses, relative to the response at 1 mg/kg. A strong relationship between residual TCB concentration in the liver and the decreased EROD activity was evident at the higher doses of TCB. Aminopyrine N-demethylase, a monooxygenase activity not catalyzed by P450E, was unaffected by TCB treatment, indicating a specificity in the TCB effect. Analysis in vitro revealed that TCB was a potent competitive inhibitor of EROD activity, with half-maximal inhibition at 0.3 microM, near the Km for ethoxyresorufin, suggesting one mechanism for the in vivo effect of TCB. These results demonstrate that PCB congeners with ortho-chlorine substitution, and which are effective inducers of AHH and EROD activity in mammals, are ineffective, at the doses tested, as inducers in the teleost scup.