Aspirin (ASA) and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) inhibit colorectal tumorigenesis. Apoptosis is a critical determinant of tissue mass homeostasis and may play a role in carcinogenesis. We studied the effect of ASA on the survival of a human colon cancer cell line using more sensitive methods than we had applied previously. ASA induced apoptosis in HT-29 colon adenocarcinoma cells at concentrations > or =1 mM as established by: (a) morphological changes consistent with apoptosis in cells examined by fluorescence microscopy and semi-thin cell sections, and (b) DNA strand breaks: 45% of the cells were TdT-mediated dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL) positive at 3 mM at 72 hr, and 70% were positive by the comet assay. Electron microscopy also confirmed the induction of apoptosis by ASA. ASA-induced apoptosis was not associated with: (a) a ladder pattern on genomic DNA electrophoresis, or (b) a subdiploid peak on flow cytometry. Apoptotic bodies were virtually absent on standard morphological assessments and only a few were detected on semi-thin sections. For the above reasons, this apoptosis induced by ASA is "atypical," and the unusual features of ASA-induced apoptosis, besides their taxonomic value, may offer clues to the mechanisms that control the process of apoptosis or perhaps the cancer chemopreventive properties of this compound. These findings demonstrate that ASA induces apoptosis in human colon cancer cells, bolstering the hypothesis that apoptosis may be a mechanism by which NSAIDs inhibit colon carcinogenesis. These findings should be examined in animal and/or clinical research studies in vivo.