Quercetin-3- and quercetin-7-glucuronides are major products of small intestine epithelial cell metabolism (J. Nutr. 130 (2000) 2765) but it is not known if quercetin glucuronides can be further processed in the liver or if they are excreted directly. Using the HepG2 hepatic cell model, we show that highly purified quercetin-7- and quercetin-3-glucuronides can follow two pathways of metabolism: (i) methylation of the catechol functional group of both quercetin glucuronides (44% of quercetin-7-alucuronide at a rate of 2.6 nmol/hr/10(6) cells, and 32% of quercetin-3-glucuronide at a rate of 1.9 nmol/hr/10(6) cells, over 48 hr) or (ii) hydrolysis of the glucuronide by endogenous beta-glucuronidase followed by sulfation to quercetin-3'-sulfate (7% of quercetin-7-glucuronide at a rate of 0.42 nmol/hr/10(6) cells and 10% of quercetin-3-glucuronide at a rate of 0.61 nmol/hr/10(6) cells, over 48 hr). In contrast, quercetin-4'-glucuronide was not metabolised, and interestingly this is not a major product of the small intestine absorption process. The conversion of the quercetin-7- and quercetin-3-glucuronide to the mono-sulfate conjugate shows intracellular deglucuronidation by beta-glucuronidase activity, allowing transient contact of the free aglycone with the cellular environment. Inhibition of methylation using a catechol-O-methyltransferase inhibitor shifted metabolism towards sulfation, as indicated by an increase in quercetin-3'-sulfate formation (increase in rate to 1.13 and 1.43 nmol/hr/10(6) cells for quercetin-7-glucuronide and quercetin-3-glucuronide, respectively). Efflux of quercetin metabolites from HepG2 cells (methylated glucuronide and sulfate conjugates) was not altered by verapamil, a p-glycoprotein inhibitor, but efflux was competitively inhibited by MK-571, a multidrug resistant protein inhibitor, indicating a role for multidrug resistant protein in the efflux of quercetin conjugates from HepG2 cells. These results show that HepG2 cells can absorb and turnover quercetin glucuronides and that human endogenous beta-glucuronidase activity could modulate the intracellular biological activities of dietary antioxidant flavonoids. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.