Lignans have, until recently, been found only in plants. Enterolactone and enterodiol are the major lignans present in the urine of humans and have a potential physiological protective role against cancer. It has been shown that these compounds can be formed in vitro by human faecal flora and that enterodiol is oxidized to enterolactone by bacteria that are present in stools at a concentration of up to 10(3)/g. It was also possible to produce both of these lignans in vitro from linseeds and from secoisolariciresinol, a precursor present in linseed, by bacteria present in stools, at a concentration of between 10(3) and 10(4)/g. Enterolactone was produced from matairesinol, a more abundant plant lignan than secoisolariciresinol, after incubation with a mixed faecal flora under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. In each case conversion was dependent on the presence of viable bacteria. These findings indicate that a number of different pathways operate to produce enterolactone and enterodiol depending on the ingested dietary precursor.