Butyrate, a short chain fatty acid produced in the colon as a result of fermentation of dietary fibre by symbiotic bacteria, induces apoptosis in colonic tumour cell lines. Three human colonic adenoma cell lines (AA/C1, RG/C2 and BH/C1) and one carcinoma cell line (S/KS/FI) were used to determine the effects of butyrate on the expression of bcl-2, bax and bak to examine the possible role of these proteins in the induction of apoptosis. RG/C2 and BH/C1 cells express p-26-bcl-2 and butyrate treatment decreased p26-bcl-2 levels in association with apoptosis, whereas bax and bak levels remained constant. AA/C1 and S/KS/FI cells have no detectable p26-bcl-2. In S/KS/FI cells, bax or bak levels did not change in response to butyrate. However, in AA/C1 cells, butyrate-induced apoptosis was associated with increased bak levels. Therefore, in AA/C1 cells butyrate-induced apoptosis appears to be mediated through bak. Furthermore, butyrate also induced apoptosis and increased bak levels in AA/C1 cells transfected with a bcl-2 expression vector which expressed high levels of p26-bcl-2. For S/KS/FI cells, two bcl-2 transfectants gave different results. bcl-2 protected against apoptosis in one transfectant in which bak levels were not elevated in response to butyrate, whereas it did not protect in the other transfectant in which bak levels were increased after butyrate treatment. The results suggest that expression of constitutively high levels of p26-bcl-2 only conferred protection against apoptosis when bak levels were not elevated in response to butyrate and that expression of constitutively high levels of p26-bcl-2 does not counter the effects of bak. Different mechanisms appear to be involved in cell death signalling in different tumours since butyrate may induce apoptosis via elevated levels of bak or reduced levels of p26-bcl-2.