While the life-extending and disease-modulating effects of caloric restriction (CR) are well documented in whole animal studies and in correlative experiments using cells taken from CR animals, very few studies have used cells in culture after their removal from the CR-fed animal. In using this in vivo-->in vitro approach we have attempted to examine the proposition that the effects of CR can be transferred to individual cells by analyzing the cellular functions of proliferation and transformation, the activation of oncogenes, and the methylation of DNA as a function only of diet. Pancreatic acinar cells excised from CR-fed Brown-Norway rats and placed in rich medium showed different responses compared to cells from ad libitum (AL)-fed controls. CR had the effect of slowing growth rate and protecting against spontaneous and N-methyl-N'-nitro-N-nitrosoguanidine (MNNG)-induced transformation over 14 passages of cells in culture. At the molecular level, cells from the CR animals showed reduced c-Ha-ras oncogene expression and mutation as well as reduced mutation of the p53 suppressor gene. CR also increased genomic methylation of ras DNA. We conclude that the effects of CR treatment of the animal are transferred to individual cells and note that these responses (decreased proliferation and transformation; depressed oncogene expression and mutation and decreased suppressor gene mutation; and increased oncogene methylation) are cellular and molecular analogs of in vivo weight loss, life extension, and carcinogenesis modulation, which are hallmarks of CR in the whole animal. The fact that these responses are seen generations after the cells are removed from the CR-treated animal indicates that CR causes a permanent predisposition of pancreatic acinar cells to these modulated responses and shows the value of the in vivo-->in vitro protocol in studies that relate diet to cellular and molecular function.