The number of new chemicals that are being synthesized each year has been steadily increasing. While chemicals are of immense benefit to mankind, many of them have a significant negative impact, primarily owing to their inherent chemistry and toxicity, on the environment as well as human health. In addition to chemical exposures, human exposures to numerous non-chemical toxic agents take place in the environment and workplace. Given that human exposure to toxic agents is often unavoidable and many of these agents are found to have detrimental human health effects, it is important to develop strategies to prevent the adverse health effects associated with toxic exposures. Early detection of adverse health effects as well as a clear understanding of the mechanisms, especially at the molecular level, underlying these effects are key elements in preventing the adverse health effects associated with human exposure to toxic agents. Recent developments in genomics, especially transcriptomics, have prompted investigations into this important area of toxicology. Previous studies conducted in our laboratory and elsewhere have demonstrated the potential application of blood gene expression profiling as a sensitive, mechanistically relevant and practical surrogate approach for the early detection of adverse health effects associated with exposure to toxic agents. The advantages of blood gene expression profiling as a surrogate approach to detect early target organ toxicity and the molecular mechanisms underlying the toxicity are illustrated and discussed using recent studies on hepatotoxicity and pulmonary toxicity. Furthermore, the important challenges this emerging field in toxicology faces are presented in this review article. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.