Phthalate esters are widely used as plasticizers in the manufacture of products made of polyvinyl chloride. Mono-(2-ethylhexyl)-phthalate (MEHP) induces rodent hepatocarcinogenesis by a mechanism that involves activation of the nuclear transcription factor peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-alpha (PPARalpha). MEHP also activates PPAR-gamma (PPARgamma), which contributes to adipocyte differentiation and insulin sensitization. Human exposure to other phthalate monoesters, including metabolites of di-n-butyl phthalate and butyl benzyl phthalate, is substantially higher than that of MEHP, prompting this investigation of their potential for PPAR activation, assayed in COS cells and in PPAR-responsive liver (PPARalpha) and adipocyte (PPARgamma) cell lines. Monobenzyl phthalate (MBzP) and mono-sec-butyl phthalate (MBuP) both increased the COS cell transcriptional activity of mouse PPARalpha, with effective concentration for half-maximal response (EC50) values of 21 and 63 microM, respectively. MBzP also activated human PPARalpha (EC50=30 microM) and mouse and human PPARgamma (EC50=75-100 microM). MEHP was a more potent PPAR activator than MBzP or MBuP, with mouse PPARalpha more sensitive to MEHP (EC50=0.6 microM) than human PPARalpha (EC50=3.2 microM). MEHP activation of PPARgamma required somewhat higher concentrations, EC50=10.1 microM (mouse PPARgamma) and 6.2 microM (human PPARgamma). No significant PPAR activation was observed with the monomethyl, mono-n-butyl, dimethyl, or diethyl esters of phthalic acid. PPARalpha activation was verified in FAO rat liver cells stably transfected with PPARalpha, where expression of several endogenous PPARalpha target genes was induced by MBzP, MBuP, and MEHP. Similarly, activation of endogenous PPARgamma target genes was evidenced for all three phthalates by the stimulation of PPARgamma-dependent adipogenesis in the 3T3-L1 cell differentiation model. These findings demonstrate the potential of environmental phthalate monoesters for activation of rodent and human PPARs and may help to elucidate the molecular basis for the adverse health effects proposed to be associated with human phthalate exposure.