Thirteen isoflavonoids, flavonoids, and lignans, including some known phytoestrogens, were evaluated for their effects on DNA synthesis in estrogen-dependent (MCF-7) and -independent (MDA-MB-231) human breast cancer cells. Treatment for 24 hours with most of the compounds at 20-80 microM sharply inhibited DNA synthesis in MDA-MB-231 cells. In MCF-7 cells, on the other hand, biphasic effects were seen. At 0.1-10 microM, coumestrol, genistein, biochanin A, apigenin, luteolin, kaempferol, and enterolactone induced DNA synthesis 150-235% and, at 20-90 microM, inhibited DNA synthesis by 50%. Treatment of MCF-7 cells for 10 days with genistein or coumestrol showed continuous stimulation of DNA synthesis at low concentrations. Time-course experiments with genistein in MCF-7 cells showed effects to be reversed by 48-hour withdrawal of genistein at most concentrations. Induction of DNA synthesis in MCF-7 cells, but not in MDA-MB-231 cells, is consistent with an estrogenic effect of these compounds. Inhibition of estrogen-dependent and -independent breast cancer cells at high concentrations suggests additional mechanisms independent of the estrogen receptor. The current focus on the role of phytoestrogens in cancer prevention must take into account the biphasic effects observed in this study, showing inhibition of DNA synthesis at high concentrations but induction at concentrations close to probable levels in humans.