A biologically aggressive subset of human breast cancers has been demonstrated to overexpress fatty acid synthase (FAS), the key enzyme of endogenous FA biosynthesis. This breast cancer-specific activation of FAS-dependent lipogenesis, an anabolic-energy-storage pathway of minor importance in normal cells, would render breast cancer cells more vulnerable to anti-metabolite interventions with FAS as therapeutic target. Not surprisingly, pharmacological inhibitors of FAS have been reported to produce both cytostatic and cytotoxic effects in human breast cancer cells, as well as to suppress DNA replication. However, the signal transduction pathway(s) that link FAS hyperactivity and breast cancer cell growth has been unresolved. Here, we have attempted to provide a systematic approach to assess the role of FAS signaling on the survival and proliferation of human breast cancer cells. First, we assessed the level of FAS protein in a panel of human breast cancer cell lines (MCF-7, MDA-MB-231, MDA-MB-453, MDA-MB-435, ZR-75B, T47-D, BT-474, and SK-Br3). FAS expression was graded from ++++ (overexpression) in SK-Br3 cells to + (very low expression) in MDA-MB-231 cells. No correlation was noted between FAS overexpression and estrogen receptor (ER) or progesterone receptor (PR) status, whereas a positive correlation was found between high levels of FAS expression and the amplification and/or overexpression of HER-2/neu oncogene. Because metabolic adaptation of breast cancer cells to the ambient fatty acid concentration may be relevant to the goal of utilizing FAS inhibition as a chemotherapeutic target, we evaluated the effect of exogenous dietary fatty acids on the cytotoxicity resulting from the inhibition of FAS activity. Pharmacological inhibition of FAS activity by the natural antibiotic cerulenin [(2S,3R)-2,3-epoxy-4-oxo-7E,10E-dodecadienamide] resulted in a dose-dependent cytotoxicity which positively paralleled the endogenous level of FAS. Supraphysiological levels of exogenous oleic acid (OA), a omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acid synthesized from a primary-end product of FAS palmitate, significantly diminished cell toxicity caused by cerulenin. Indeed, OA exposure significantly reduced FAS activity and expression by 55% in FAS-overexpressing SK-Br3 cells. omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) and omega-6 (linoleic acid and arachidonic acid) polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), however, were unable to rescue breast cancer cells from cerulenin-induced cytotoxicity. Pharmacological blockade of FAS activity in FAS-overexpressing SK-Br3 cells resulted in apoptosis as determined by an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay for histone-associated DNA fragments, and confirmed by TUNEL DNA-end labeling experiments. We further characterized signaling molecules that participate in the cellular events that follow inhibition of FAS activity and precede apoptosis in breast cancer cells. In SK-Br3 cells, cerulenin-induced inhibition of FAS activity resulted in down-regulation of p53, and up-regulation of cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor (CDKi) p21WAF1/CIP1. Treatment with cerulenin or a novel small-molecule inhibitor of FAS C75 resulted in a dramatic accumulation of CDKi p27KIP1, which was accompanied by a noteworthy translocation of p27KIP1 from cytosol to cell nuclei. Strikingly, FAS inhibition also caused a significant activation of the Raf-mitogen-activated protein kinase (MEK) extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK1/2) cell survival pathway. Interestingly, we demonstrated that inhibition of FAS activity increased the nuclear-to-cytoplasmic ratio of BRCA1, a breast cancer tumor suppressor protein, as well as it induced a nuclear translocalization of the anti-apoptotic nuclear transcription factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB). In conclusion, here we demonstrate that: a) breast cancer cells retain dependence on endogenous fatty acid synthesis and sensitivity to FAS inhibition in the presence of supraphysiological levels of dietary fatty acids, supporting the notion that FAS inhibition may be useful in treFAS inhibition may be useful in treating breast cancer in vivo; b) endogenous fatty acid synthesis is functional in breast cancer cells and is vital since its pharmacological inhibition is cytotoxic by promoting apoptosis, and c) specific blockade of FAS activity induces the accumulation, activation, and/or cellular relocalization of multiple and diverse pro- and anti-apoptotic signaling pathways, suggesting that p53-p21WAF1/CIP1, ERK1/2 MAPK, p27KIP1, BRCA1, and NF-kappaB play a novel role in the breast cancer cell response to a metabolic stress after perturbation of FAS-dependent de novo fatty acid biosynthesis.