There are conflicting claims for the role of melatonin in oncogenesis. In addition, the mechanism(s) underlying melatonin's effects in oncogenic processes is (are) unknown. In this study, the effects of melatonin exposure on cell proliferation and transformation were assessed in NIH3T3 cells transfected with either the human mt(1) (NIH-mt1) or MT(2) (NIH-MT2) melatonin receptors. The effects of melatonin exposure on proliferation was assessed by direct cell counts and [(3)H]thymidine uptake assays. The effect of chronic melatonin pretreatment on transformation was assessed by focus assays. In both NIH-mt1 and NIH-MT2 cells, melatonin pretreatment decreased cell proliferation and transformation. Control (NIH-neo) cells did not show this effect. However, as revealed by the [(3)H]thymidine uptake assays, an increase in DNA synthesis occurred in NIH-mt1 cells, whereas no increase occurred in the NIH-MT2 or NIH-neo cells. Upon examination of melatonin receptors, a decrease in the function of both mt(1) and MT(2) receptors occurred. These data suggest that perhaps an attenuation of receptor-mediated processes are involved in the anti-proliferative and anti-transformation capabilities of melatonin in NIH3T3 cells. In addition, based on the [(3)H]thymidine assays, receptor mediated signal transduction mechanisms may slow the growth of cells via actions on the cell cycle. The results from this study shed new insight on the putative mechanisms underlying melatonin's effects on cell proliferation and transformation and lends support for a protective role of melatonin in oncogenesis.