Quercetin has chemoprotective properties in experimental colon cancer models, and in vitro studies have demonstrated that quercetin inhibits HT-29 colon cancer cell growth. ErbB2 and ErbB3 receptor tyrosine kinases have been associated with the development of human colon cancer, and the expressions of both receptors are high in HT-29 cells. In this study, we assessed quercetin regulation of HT-29 and SW480 cell apoptosis and the influence of quercetin on the protein expression of ErbB2, ErbB3, Akt, Bax and Bcl-2. We cultured HT-29 cells in the presence of various concentrations (0, 25, 50, or 100 micromol/L) of quercetin or rutin. Quercetin inhibited HT-29 cell growth in a dose-dependent manner, whereas rutin had no effect on the cell growth. DNA that was isolated from cells treated with 50 micromol/L of quercetin exhibited an oliogonucleosomal laddering pattern characteristic of apoptotic cell death. Western blot analysis of cell lysates revealed that Bcl-2 levels decreased dose-dependently in cells treated with quercetin, but Bax remained unchanged. Quercetin increased levels of cleaved caspase-3 and the 89-kDa fragment of poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase. In addition, phosphorylated Akt levels were markedly lower in cells treated with 25 micromol/L quercetin, but total Akt levels decreased only at 100 micromol/L quercetin. Furthermore, a dose-dependent decrease in ErbB2 and ErbB3 levels was detected in quercetin-treated cells. The results obtained using SW480 cells were similar to those obtained with HT-29 cells. In conclusion, we have shown that quercetin inhibits cell growth and induces apoptosis in colon cancer cells, and that this may be mediated by its ability to down-regulate ErbB2/ErbB3 signaling and the Akt pathway.