The effect of dietary fish oil on colonic crypt cell apoptosis and proliferation was examined in male Wistar rats, 24 and 48 h after administration of 1,2-dimethylhydrazine (DMH), and its influence on the induction of aberrant crypt foci (ACF) in the distal colon was assessed. Rats (125-150 g) fed a high-fat semi-synthetic diet containing corn oil (CO) were given DMH (30 mg/kg body wt) or a sham injection of EDTA/NaCl. Animals were then fed either the CO diet or a diet in which fish oil (EPA 18.7%; DHA 8%) was substituted for corn oil. Subgroups of rats (n = 5) were killed after 24 and 48 h, and crypt cell apoptosis and proliferation were quantified by morphological criteria in isolated intact crypts from the mid and distal colon. Consumption of the fish oil diet (FO) was associated with increased apoptotic cell death (P < 0.001) and suppression of proliferation (P < 0.05) in colonic crypts both 24 and 48 h after DMH. In a second experiment, animals were given three injections of DMH or sham injections of carrier at weekly intervals. For 48 h after each injection animals were fed either the CO or FO diet, but otherwise maintained on the CO throughout. The number and crypt multiplicity of ACF in the distal colon were determined after 18 weeks, and animals given the FO diet for the 48 h period following carcinogen administration were found to have significantly fewer ACF than rats fed the CO diet (P < 0.05). The data demonstrate that the fatty acid composition of the diet is an important determinant in the induction of carcinogenesis by DMH. The proliferative and apoptotic response of the colonic crypt to carcinogen and fish oil, coupled with the reduced incidence of ACF, suggest n-3 PUFA can protect against the carcinogenic effects of DMH by mediating changes in the balance proliferation and cell death.