The short chain fatty acids acetate, propionate and butyrate are produced when dietary fibre is fermented by the colonic bacteria. We have previously shown that sodium butyrate induces apoptosis in 3 colorectal tumour cell lines. We have extended our study to 3 adenoma and 4 carcinoma cell lines and investigated whether propionate and acetate also induce apoptosis. All 3 short chain fatty acids induced apoptosis at physiological concentrations, but of the 3, butyrate was the most effective. Since these fatty acids are produced as a result of bacterial fermentation of dietary fibre, this may in part explain the correlation between a high-fibre diet and low colorectal cancer incidence. Sodium butyrate induced apoptosis in all 7 of the cell lines studied; however, 2 of the 4 carcinoma cell lines (PC/JW/F1 and S/KS/F1) were more resistant to butyrate-induced apoptosis than the 3 adenoma cell lines, suggesting that at least some carcinomas may evolve mechanisms to protect the cells from the induction of apoptosis. The bile acid deoxycholic acid has previously been reported as a possible tumour promoter in the large intestine and its levels are reduced by dietary fibre. Concentrations of between 10 nM and 0.1 mM had no effect on either the proliferation or apoptosis of colonic tumour cells in vitro. However, a significant induction of apoptosis was obtained at a concentration of 0.5 mM. These results may have significance for the aetiology of colorectal cancer. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.