In current molecular epidemiology studies, a wide range of methods are used to monitor early biological effects after exposure to xenobiotic agents. Gene expression profiling is considered a promising tool that may provide more sensitive, mechanism-based biomarkers. As a first step toward obtaining information on the applicability of gene expression profiles as a biomarker for early biological effects of carcinogen exposure, we conducted in vitro studies on human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC). We used cigarette smoke condensate (CSC) and a selection of its genotoxic constituents as model agents, applying cDNA microarray technology to investigate modulated gene expression. In independent experiments using cells from several donors, quiescent PBMC were exposed for 18 h, followed by gene expression analyses on a microarray containing 600 toxicologically relevant genes. The search for candidate biomarker genes was binomial: first we looked for genes responding similarly to all agents; second, for agent-specific genes. Many genes were significantly deregulated by all compounds, but as the direction of deregulation frequently differed per agent, they are not useful as generic biomarkers. Cigarette smoke condensate modulated the expression of many more genes than any of its constituents, with the largest effect in SERPINB2. The affected genes are involved in immune or stress responses, but surprisingly no genes involved in DNA damage response were modulated, and only a few in DNA repair. In conclusion, several genes have been identified as potential biomarkers for population studies on early biological effects caused by cigarette smoke exposure, but no genes were identified that represent a generic biomarker.