Complex dietary sphingolipids such as sphingomyelin and glycosphingolipids have been reported to inhibit development of colon cancer. This protective role may be the result of turnover to bioactive metabolites including sphingoid bases (sphingosine and sphinganine) and ceramide, which inhibit proliferation and stimulate apoptosis. The purpose of the present study was to investigate the effects of sphingoid bases and ceramides on the growth, death, and cell cycle of HT-29 and HCT-116 human colon cancer cells. The importance of the 4,5-trans double bond present in both sphingosine and C(2)-ceramide (a short chain analog of ceramide) was evaluated by comparing the effects of these lipids with those of sphinganine and C(2)-dihydroceramide (a short chain analog of dihydroceramide), which lack this structural feature. Sphingosine, sphinganine, and C(2)-ceramide inhibited growth and caused death of colon cancer cells in time- and concentration-dependent manners, whereas C(2)-dihydroceramide had no effect. These findings suggest that the 4,5-trans double bond is necessary for the inhibitory effects of C(2)-ceramide, but not for sphingoid bases. Evaluation of cellular morphology via fluorescence microscopy and quantitation of fragmented low-molecular weight DNA using the diphenylamine assay demonstrated that sphingoid bases and C(2)-ceramide cause chromatin and nuclear condensation as well as fragmentation of DNA, suggesting these lipids kill colon cancer cells by inducing apoptosis. Flow cytometric analyses confirmed that sphingoid bases and C(2)-ceramide increased the number of cells in the A(0) peak indicative of apoptosis and demonstrated that sphingoid bases arrest the cell cycle at G(2)/M phase and cause accumulation in the S phase. These findings establish that sphingoid bases and ceramide induce apoptosis in colon cancer cells and implicate them as potential mediators of the protective role of more complex dietary sphingolipids in colon carcinogenesis.