Embryo toxicity of particles generated by combustion processes is of special concern for human health. A significant part of these toxic effects is linked to the binding of some pollutants (like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs) to the Aryl hydrocarbon Receptor (AhR) and the activation of target genes, like the cytochrome P4501A. This activity was analyzed for ambient air and coal-combustion particle extracts in zebrafish embryos (the cyp1aDarT assay) and in two single-cell bioassays: the yeast-based YCM-RYA and the DR-luc (rat cells) assay. Observed AhR ligand activity of samples generally correlated to the predicted toxic effect according to their PAH composition, except for one of the coal combustion samples with an anomalously high activity in the cyp1aDarT assay. This sample induced deformities in zebrafish embryos. We concluded that the combination of morphological and molecular assays may detect embryonic toxic effects that cannot be predicted from chemical analyses or single-cell bioassays. © 2013 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.