The primary fish gill cell culture system (FIGCS) is an in vitro technique which has the potential to replace animals in whole effluent toxicity tests. In the current study FIGCS were transported into the field and exposed to filtered (0.2μm) river water for 24h from 4 sites, on 2 different sampling dates. Sites 1 and 2 are situated in an urban catchment (River Wandle, London, UK) with site 1 downstream of a sewage treatment work; site 3 is located in a suburban park (River Cray, Kent, UK), and site 4 is more rural (River Darent, Kent, UK). The change in transepithelial electrical resistance (TER), the expression of the metal responsive genes metallothionein A (mta) and B (mtb), cytochrome P450 1A1 (cyp1a1) and 3A27 (cyp3a27), involved in phase 1 metabolism, were assessed following exposure to sample water for 24h. TER was comparable between FIGCS exposed to 0.2μm filtered river water and those exposed to synthetic moderately soft water for 24h. During the first sampling time, there was an increase in mta, cyp1a1 and cyp3a27 gene expression in epithelium exposed to water from sites 1 and 2, and during the second sampling period an increase in cyp3a27 gene expression at sites 1 and 4. Urban river water is a complex mixture of contaminants (e.g., metals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and polyaromatic hydrocarbons) and the increase in the expression of genes encoding mta, cyp1a1 and cyp3a27 in FIGCS is indicative of the presence of biologically active pollutants.