The short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) butyrate is produced via anaerobic bacterial fermentation within the colon and is thought to be protective in regard to colon carcinogenesis. Although butyrate (C4) is considered the most potent of the SCFA, a variety of other SCFA also exist in the colonic lumen. Butyrate is thought to exert its cellular effects through the induction of histone hyperacetylation. We sought to determine the effects of a variety of the SCFA on colon carcinoma cell growth, differentiation and apoptosis. HT-29 or HCT-116 (wild-type and p21-deleted) cells were treated with physiologically relevant concentrations of various SCFA, and histone acetylation state was assayed by acid-urea-triton-X gel electrophoresis and immunoblotting. Growth and apoptotic effects were studied by flow cytometry, and differentiation effects were assessed using transient transfections and Northern blotting. Propionate (C3) and valerate (C5) caused growth arrest and differentiation in human colon carcinoma cells. The magnitude of their effects was associated with a lesser degree of histone hyperacetylation compared with butyrate. Acetate (C2) and caproate (C6), in contrast, did not cause histone hyperacetylation and also had no appreciable effects on cell growth or differentiation. SCFA-induced transactivation of the differentiation marker gene, intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), was blocked by histone deacetylase (HDAC), further supporting the critical link between SCFA and histones. Butyrate also significantly increased apoptosis, whereas the other SCFA studied did not. The growth arrest induced by the SCFA was characterized by an increase in the expression of the p21 cell-cycle inhibitor and down-regulation of cyclin B1 (CB1). In p21-deleted HCT-116 colon cancer cells, the SCFA did not alter the rate of proliferation. These data suggest that the antiproliferative, apoptotic and differentiating properties of the various SCFA are linked to the degree of induced histone hyperacetylation. Furthermore, SCFA-mediated growth arrest in colon carcinoma cells requires the p21 gene.