The in vitro effect of butyrate on expression of differentiation markers in colonic epithelial cells was assessed in the colon cancer cell line, LIM1215 and in epithelial cells isolated from a surgically resected histologically normal colon. Markers used to assess cell differentiation were: net glycoprotein synthesis ([3H]-glucosamine uptake) expressed relative to net protein synthesis ([14C]-leucine uptake), and the expression of the brush border glycoproteins (alkaline phosphatase and carcino-embryonic antigen) in cell homogenates calculated relative to cellular protein content. In response to 24 h exposure to 1 mmol/L butyrate, all markers significantly increased in LIM1215 cells whereas they all significantly decreased in isolated colonic epithelial cells under identical culture conditions. Similar effects were seen at butyrate concentrations of up to 4 mmol/L. Butyrate suppressed proliferation of LIM1215 cells but had no consistent effect on [3H]-thymidine uptake by, or DNA content of, normal epithelial cells. Additional experiments found no evidence of a toxic effect of butyrate at those concentrations nor of an alteration of cell responsiveness to butyrate due to the isolation process itself. In contrast to its differentiative effect on neoplastic cells, butyrate reduces the expression of phenotypic markers of differentiation in vitro in colonic epithelial cells from non-neoplastic mucosa.