Hepatic levels of GSH and Phase II detoxication enzymes were compared to biochemical and histological indices of hepatic damage in 4- to 76-week-old nontransgenic mice and their transgenic littermates that overexpress the hepatitis B virus large envelope protein. The mice were fed a low-sucrose AIN-76A diet ad libitum. Hepatic-specific activities of quinone reductase (QR) and glutathione S-transferase (GST) were increased 2- to 10-fold beginning at 12 weeks of age in transgenic mice and correlated with increases in serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT) (r = 0.84 and 0.59, respectively). Quantitative histological analysis demonstrated that apoptosis was the predominant feature in 4- to 12-week-old transgenic mice, whereas necrosis and inflammation predominated at later time points. Surprisingly, 3-fold elevations in ALT were observed beginning at 52 weeks of age in nontransgenic mice, and hepatic-specific activities of QR and GST were also modestly increased in elderly nontransgenic animals. In contrast to transgenic mice, apoptosis was not a prominent feature. The strongest histological correlates to ALT in 4- to 76-week-old nontransgenic mice were necrosis and inflammation (r > 0.96), which in turn may have been evoked by hepatic fat accumulation. Profiles of specific GST isoforms were quantitated chromatographically and identified by sequencing tryptic digests. The Ya1 subunit of alpha-class GST was markedly increased from undetectable levels in transgenic mice, while more modest increases were observed in nontransgenic mice more than 1 year old. Fivefold elevations of the Yb1 subunit, a constitutively expressed mu-class GST, were found in transgenic mice older than 4 weeks of age, while 2-fold increases were observed in nontransgenic animals that were more than 1 year old. These studies demonstrate that selected increases in Phase II detoxication enzymes are a stereotyped response to chronic hepatitis that is strikingly reminiscent of the treatment of mice with anticarcinogenic enzyme inducers.