The CYP3A subfamily of cytochromes P450 metabolize many medications and environmental contaminants. CYP3A4 and, in 25% of patients, CYP3A5 seem to be the major CYP3A genes expressed in adult liver. Hepatic levels of CYP3A4 can be estimated by the erythromycin breath test and vary at least 10-fold among patients. CYP3A4 has also been shown to be present in small bowel where it is responsible for significant "first-pass" metabolism of orally administered substrates. However, it is not known whether there is significant interindividual variability in the intestinal expression of CYP3A4, or whether the liver and intestinal catalytic activities of CYP3A4 correlate within an individual. It is also not known whether CYP3A5 is expressed in the small intestine. To address these questions, we administered the erythromycin breath test to 20 patients and obtained biopsies from their small bowel. There was a 6-fold variation in CYP3A catalytic activity (midazolam hydroxylation), an 11-fold variation in CYP3A4 protein content, and an 8-fold variation in CYP3A4 mRNA content in intestinal biopsies. There was an excellent correlation between intestinal CYP3A4 protein level and catalytic activity (r = 0.86; p = 0.0001); however, neither parameter significantly correlated with hepatic CYP3A4 activity as measured by the erythromycin breath test result (r = 0.27; p = 0.24 and r = 0.33; p = 0.15, respectively). We also found that CYP3A5 protein was readily detectable in biopsies from 14 (70%) of the patients, indicating that CYP3A5 is commonly expressed in human small intestine.