The effects of a potent spermidine synthase inhibitor, trans-4-methylcyclohexylamine (4MCHA), and a spermine synthase inhibitor, N-(3-aminopropyl)cyclohexylamine (APCHA), on polyamine biosynthesis and cell growth have been studied in rat hepatoma cells (HTC cells) in culture. Treatment of HTC cells with 4MCHA or APCHA caused a marked decrease of spermidine or spermine with a compensatory increase of putrescine and spermine or spermidine, respectively, in a dose-dependent manner, suggesting specific and potent inhibition of each target enzyme. When 250 microM 4MCHA or APCHA was administered to the cells for 8 days, spermidine was decreased to 2% of control culture or spermine below 1%, respectively, while total polyamine (sum of putrescine, spermidine, and spermine) remained almost unchanged during the culture. There were no significant changes in the growth rate during treatment with the inhibitors at 250 microM concentration. The results suggest that in the growth of HTC cells, putrescine and spermine can be substituted for most of the fraction of cellular spermidine, and spermidine for most of the fraction of cellular spermine. Of five enzymatic activities involved in polyamine biosynthesis and interconversion, S-adenosylmethionine decarboxylase activity increased 8-fold with 250 microM 4MCHA, and 3-fold with 250 microM APCHA during the treatment. This increase was partially due to the increase of half-life of the enzyme. Separate roles for spermidine and spermine in the biosynthesis of the enzyme protein were also suggested.