In the 1950's and 1960's it became obvious that many chemicals in daily use were mutagenic or carcinogenic, but there seemed to be little relation between the two activities. As scientists were debating the cause of this discrepancy, it was hypothesized that mammalian metabolism could form highly reactive intermediates from rather innocuous chemicals and that these intermediates could react with DNA and were mutagenic. This commentary presents the historical development of metabolic activation in mutagenicity tests, beginning with Udenfriend's hydroxylation system, which mimics aspects of mammalian metabolism in a purely chemical mixture, and extending through procedures that moved closer and closer to incorporating actual mammalian metabolism into the test systems. The stages include microsomal activation systems, host-mediated assays, incorporation of human P450 genes into the target cells or organisms, and detecting mutations in single cells in vivo. A recent development in this progression is the insertion of recoverable vectors containing mutational targets into the mammalian genome. Since the target genes of transgenic assays are in the genome, they are not only exposed to active metabolites, but they also undergo the same repair processes as endogenous genes of the mammalian genome.