Flavonoids are among the best candidates for mediating the protective effect of diets rich in fruits and vegetables with respect to colorectal cancer. To gain additional information about their growth effects on colorectal tumors and their cellular mechanisms of action, a series of related flavonoids was added to cultures of colonic tumor cells. Most compounds induced growth inhibition and cell loss at concentrations of 1-100 microM, relative effectivity being quercetin > apigenin > fisetin > robinetin and kaempferol. Myricetin was only slightly effective. Quercetin was the strongest inducer of apoptosis in a process that was reversible until 10 hours by flavonoid removal and until 24 hours by fetal calf serum. Cells were preferentially retained in the S phase. On the cellular level, quercetin sensitivity was correlated with epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptor levels, rapid growth, and poor differentiation, indicating the possibility of targeting those cells most harmful for the organism. The flavonoid transiently inhibited EGF receptor phosphorylation but had only little effect on other signaling molecules. Even after recovery of receptor phosphorylation, cells remained resistant to EGF stimulation. In summary, the data indicate that inhibition of EGF receptor kinase is an integral part of quercetin-induced growth inhibition, but additional mechanisms also contribute to the overall effect.