While there is an increasing interest in selenium chemoprevention against human colon polyp recurrence and other cancers, the mechanism(s) by which these agents inhibit carcinogenesis are uncertain. Some of the proposed mechanisms include the inhibition of cytosine methyltransferases, carcinogen bioactivation, and inhibition of cyclooxygenase (COX). More recently, it has been suggested that selenium may exert growth inhibitory effects by activating p53. However, the molecular mechanisms of action of selenomethionine, an organoselenium compound present in selenized yeast and currently being investigated in human clinical trials for colon polyp prevention, are unclear. In the present study we tested the hypothesis that selenomethionine might affect colon cancer cell growth by p53 mediated apoptosis and/or cell cycle regulation. Four human colon cancer cell lines including HCT116 and RKO (wild type p53), HCT116-p53KO (isogenic control of HCT116 cells with p53 knocked out) and Caco-2 (mutant p53) were treated with 0-100 microM of selenomethionine for 24, 48 and 72 h. Cell viability rates were determined by the MTT assay. Cell cycle analysis was performed by flow cytometry and apoptosis measured by Annexin V-Cy5 staining. Expression of p53 protein was determined by Western blotting and immunofluorescence assays. All cell lines showed concentration and time dependent growth inhibition with selenomethionine, although HCT116 and RKO cells were the most sensitive to such treatments. Interestingly, although HCT116 and HCT116-p53KO are isogenic cell lines, selenomethionine caused a G2/M cell cycle arrest in HCT116 and RKO cells, but not in HCT116-p53KO cells. Similarly, both HCT116 and RKO demonstrated a significant increase in apoptosis (100-170%; p < 0.01) with 50-100 microM selenomethionine. Cell cycle arrest and apoptosis observed in HCT116 and RKO cell lines were accompanied by a marked increase in p53 protein expression following selenium treatment. These results clearly suggest that selenomethionine exerts p53 dependent growth inhibitory effects in colon cancer cells by inducing G2/M cell cycle arrest as well as apoptosis.