Bilirubin is the principal end product of heme degradation. Prompted by epidemiologic analyses demonstrating an inverse correlation between serum bilirubin levels and cancer mortality, we examined the effect(s) of bilirubin on the growth and survival of colon adenocarcinoma cells. Adenocarcinoma cell monolayers were treated with bilirubin over a range of bilirubin:BSA molar ratios (0–0.6), and viability was assessed colorimetrically. Apoptosis was characterized by TUNEL assay, annexin V staining and caspase-3 activation. The mechanism(s) by which bilirubin induces apoptosis was investigated by Western blotting for cytochrome c release, assaying for caspase-8 and caspase-9 activation and for mitochondrial depolarization by JC-1 staining. The direct effect of bilirubin on the membrane potential of isolated mitochondria was evaluated using light-scattering and fluorescence techniques. Bilirubin decreased the viability of all colon cancer cell lines tested in a dose-dependent manner. Cells exhibited substantial apoptosis when exposed to bilirubin concentrations ranging 0–50 μM, as demonstrated by an 8- to 10-fold increase in TUNEL and annexin V staining and in caspase-3 activity. Bilirubin treatment evokes specific activation of caspase-9, enhances cytochrome c release into the cytoplasm and triggers the mitochondrial permeability transition in colon cancer monolayers. Additionally, bilirubin directly induces the depolarization of isolated rat liver mitochondria, an effect that is not inhibited by cyclosporin A. Bilirubin stimulates apoptosis of colon adenocarcinoma cells in vitro through activation of the mitochondrial pathway, apparently by directly dissipating mitochondrial membrane potential. As this effect is triggered at concentrations normally present in the intestinal lumen, we postulate a physiologic role for bilirubin in modulating colon tumorigenesis. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.