Boswellic acids are the effective components of gum resin of Boswellia serrata, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Recent studies on brain tumors and leukemic cells indicate that boswellic acids may have antiproliferative and apoptotic effects with the mechanisms being not studied in detail. We studied their antiproliferative and apoptotic effects on colon cancer cells and the pathway leading to apoptosis. HT-29 cells were treated with beta-boswellic acid (BA), keto-beta-boswellic acid (K-BA) and acetyl-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AK-BA), respectively. Apoptosis was determined by flow cytometry, by cytoplasmic DNA-histone complex and the activity of caspase-3. The cleavage of poly-(ADP-ribose)-polymerase (PARP) and expression of Fas were examined by western blot. Specific caspase inhibitors, polyclonal Fas antibody, and antagonistic Fas antibody ZB4 were employed to elucidate apoptotic pathways. DNA synthesis and cell viability were examined. Both K-BA and AK-BA increased cytoplasmic DNA-histone complex dose-dependently and increased pre-G(1) peak in flow cytometer analysis, with the effects of AK-BA being stronger than K-BA. BA only increased the formation of DNA-histone complex at a high concentration. K-BA and AK-BA increased caspase-8, caspase-9 and caspase-3 activities accompanied by cleavage of PARP. The effects of AK-BA on formation of cytoplasmic DNA histone and on caspase-3 activation were 3.7- and 3.4-fold, respectively, more effective than those induced by camptothecin. The apoptosis induced by AK-BA was inhibited completely by caspase-3 or caspase-8 inhibitor and partially by caspase-9 inhibitor. ZB4 blocked exogenous Fas ligand-induced apoptosis, but had no effect on AK-BA-induced apoptosis. AK-BA had no significant effect on expression of Fas. Apart from apoptotic effect, these acids also inhibited [(3)H]thymidine incorporation and cell viability to different extent. In conclusion, boswellic acids, particularly AK-BA and K-BA have antiproliferative and apoptotic effects in human HT-29 cells. The apoptotic effect is mediated via a pathway dependent on caspase-8 activation but independent of Fas/FasL interaction.