The purpose of the present studies was to use a biomarker approach to examine xenobiotic exposure of brown bullhead in Presque Isle Bay, Lake Erie (USA). In particular, the presence of compounds that act through the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) was of interest due to its central role in gene regulation and carcinogenesis of dioxins and certain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Initial screening of Presque Isle Bay sediment samples by gene expression microarray in mouse hepatocytes revealed prototypical dioxin-response genes such as cytochrome P450 1A1 and 1B1 (CYP1A1 and CYP1B1). The presence of AhR ligands in sediment samples was confirmed and quantified using an in vitro assay, the Chemical Activated Luciferase Expression (CALUX) assay. The CALUX assay system, by using different incubation times, allows for determination of total dioxin induction equivalents (IEQ) for less persistent compounds such as PAHs as well as for stable compounds such as polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), dibenzofurans (PCDFs), and certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Parts of Presque Isle Bay have significant concentrations of AhR ligands in sediment ranging from 200 to 1400 parts per trillion (ppt) dioxin IEQ equivalents (dry weight). This is much higher than levels of dioxin equivalents found in similar sediment samples (approximately 10 ppt). Cascade Creek appears to be a major source of dioxin-like contaminants as IEQs in sediments taken from various regions of this tributary ranged from 1300 to 42000 ppt IEQ. In addition, the CALUX assay indicated that the majority of the IEQs (>90%) in PIB samples were in fact derived from less stable compounds. To determine if brown bullhead are exposed and respond to these high levels of AhR ligands, CYP1A cDNA was cloned from this species and quantitative reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) was used to examine mRNA levels. The CYP1A mRNA concentration was lower and less variable in fish taken from Presque Isle Bay than from a body of water with much lower AhR ligand concentration. Taken together, these studies show that sediment in Presque Isle Bay is highly contaminated with AhR ligands including dioxins and PAHs, but the brown bullhead are either not exposed or are non-responsive to these carcinogenic compounds.