Adenosine may affect several pathophysiological processes, including cellular proliferation, through interaction with A(1), A(2A), A(2B), and A(3) receptors. In this study we characterized adenosine receptors in human colon cancer tissues and in colon cancer cell lines Caco2, DLD1, HT29. mRNA of all adenosine subtypes was detected in cancer tissues and cell lines. At a protein levels low amount of A(1), A(2A), and A(2B) receptors were detected, whilst the A(3) was the most abundant subtype in both cancer tissues and cells, with a pharmacological profile typical of the A(3) subtype. All the receptors were coupled to stimulation/inhibition of adenylyl-cyclase in cancer cells, with the exception of A(1) subtype. Adenosine increased cell proliferation with an EC(50) of 3-12 microM in cancer cells. This effect was not essentially reduced by adenosine receptor antagonists. However dypiridamol, an adenosine transport inhibitor, increased the stimulatory effect induced by adenosine, suggesting an action at the cell surface. Addition of adenosine deaminase makes the A(3) agonist 2-chloro-N6-(3-iodobenzyl)-N-methyl-5'-carbamoyladenosine (Cl-IB-MECA) able to stimulate cell proliferation with an EC(50) of 0.5-0.9 nM in cancer cells, suggesting a tonic proliferative effect induced by endogenous adenosine. This effect was antagonized by 5-N-(4-methoxyphenyl-carbamoyl)amino-8-propyl-2(2furyl)-pyrazolo-[4,3e]-1,2,4-triazolo [1,5-c] pyrimidine (MRE 3008F20) 10 nM. Cl-IB-MECA-stimulated cell proliferation involved extracellular-signal-regulated-kinases (ERK1/2) pathway, as demonstrated by reduction of proliferation with 1,4-diamino-2,3-dicyano-1,4-bis-[2-amino-phenylthio]-butadiene (U0126) and by ERK1/2 phosphorylation. In conclusion this study indicates for the first time that in colon cancer cell lines endogenous adenosine, through the interaction with A(3) receptors, mediates a tonic proliferative effect.