Diadenosine oligophosphates (Ap(n)A) have been proposed as intracellular and extracellular signaling molecules in animal cells. The ratio of diadenosine 5',5'''-P1,P3-triphosphate to diadenosine 5',5'''-P1,P4-tetraphosphate (Ap3A/Ap4A) is sensitive to the cellular status and alters when cultured cells undergo differentiation or are treated with interferons. In cells undergoing apoptosis induced by DNA topoisomerase II inhibitor VP16, the concentration of Ap3A decreases significantly while that of Ap4A increases. Here, we have examined the effects of exogenously added Ap3A and Ap4A on apoptosis and morphological differentiation. Penetration of Ap(n)A into cells was achieved by cold shock. Ap4A at 10 microM induced programmed cell death in human HL60, U937 and Jurkat cells and mouse VMRO cells and this effect appeared to require Ap4A breakdown as hydrolysis-resistant analogues of Ap4A were inactive. On its own, Ap3A induced neither apoptosis nor cell differentiation but did display strong synergism with the protein kinase C activators 12-deoxyphorbol-13-O-phenylacetate and 12-deoxyphorbol-13-O-phenylacetate-20-acetate in inducing differentiation of HL60 cells. We propose that Ap4A and Ap3A are physiological antagonists in determination of the cellular status: Ap4A induces apoptosis whereas Ap3A is a co-inductor of differentiation. In both cases, the mechanism of signal transduction remains unknown.