The purpose of the present study was to examine the effect of beta-sitosterol, the main dietary phytosterol on the growth of HT-29 cells, a human colon cancer cell line. In addition, the incorporation of this phytosterol into cellular membranes and how this might influence the lipid composition of the membranes were investigated. Tumor cells were grown in DMEM containing 10% FBS and supplemented with sterols (cholesterol or beta-sitosterol) at final concentrations up to 16 microM. The sterols were supplied to the media in the form of sterol cyclodextrin complexes. The cyclodextrin used was 2-hydroxypropyl-beta-cyclodextrin. The sterol to cyclodextrin molar ratio was maintained at 1:300. The study indicated that 8 and 16 microM beta-sitosterol were effective at cel growth inhibition as compared to cholesterol or to the control (no sterol supplementation). After supplementation with 16 microM beta-sitosterol for 9 days, cell growth was only one-third that of cells supplemented with equimolar concentration of cholesterol. No effect was observed on total membrane phospholipid concentration. At 16 microM beta-sitosterol supplementation, membrane cholesterol was reduced by 26%. Cholesterol supplementation resulted in a significant increase in the cholesterol/phospholipid ratio compared to either beta-sitosterol supplemented cells or controls. There was a 50% reduction in membrane sphingomyelin (SM) of cells grown in 16 microM beta-sitosterol. Additional changes were observed in the fatty acid composition of minor phospholipids of beta-sitosterol supplemented cells, such as SM, phosphatidylserine (PS), and phosphatidylinositol (PI). Only in the case of PI, was there an effect of these fatty acid changes on the unsaturation index, beta-sitosterol incorporation resulted in an increase in the U.I. It is possible that the observed growth inhibition by beta-sitosterol may be mediated through the influence of signal transduction pathways that involve membrane phospholipids.