The possibility that dietary intake of diverse naturally occurring compounds may influence the occurrence of cancer is receiving considerable scientific attention. Previously, it was reported that an extract (Crocus sativus), which contains carotenoids, had an antitumor effect and inhibited colony formation and nucleic acid synthesis by malignant human cells. Epidemiological and experimental research has indicated that carotenoids might act as antitumor agents. We have studied crocetin, a carotenoid isolated from saffron, which has been shown to have biological activity. In our experiments we utilized three malignant human cell lines: HeLa (cervical epitheloid carcinoma), A549 (lung adenocarcinoma) and VA13 (SV-40 transformed fetal lung fibroblast) cells. The effect of crocetin on colony formation and cellular DNA, RNA and protein synthesis in these cells has been examined. Incubation of these cells with crocetin for 3 h caused a dose-dependent inhibition of nucleic acid and protein synthesis. Crocetin also had a dose-dependent inhibitory effect on DNA and RNA synthesis in isolated nuclei and suppressed the activity of purified RNA polymerase II.