During azoxymethane (AOM)-induced colonic carcinogenesis in rats, biphasic induction of ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) activity occurs in the colonic mucosa. The relative contributions of these two phases of ODC induction to the carcinogenesis process were examined by studying the effects of the specific ODC inhibitor, difluoromethylornithine (DFMO), administered during either the initial phase of ODC increase or during both phases continuously. The effects of 1% and 0.25% DFMO administered continuously were also compared. Continuous oral administration of DFMO at 1% (approximately 8 mg/g body wt/wk) and 0.25% (approximately 2 mg/g body wt/wk) produced 93% inhibition of ODC induction by AOM in the right and left colons throughout the study. Despite suppression of ODC activity to near-normal levels, colon tumor incidence at 26 weeks in the right colon was not affected by either initial-phase or continuous administration of DFMO. In contrast, tumor incidence in the left colon was reduced from 35% to 5% by DFMO given continuously at doses of both 1% and 0.25% over the entire 26 weeks (P less than .05). No significant reduction in left colon tumor incidence resulted from the short initial 11-week course of DFMO although the tumor incidence was reduced (15% vs. 35%). Results suggest that the second ("post-initiation") phase of ODC induction may be of particular importance in carcinogenesis.