Sodium butyrate causes alteration of colon cancer cell morphology and biology towards that of a more differentiated phenotype. The retinoblastoma gene encodes a nuclear phosphoprotein (pRb) present in a wide range of human cancer cell lines including colon cancer cell lines. pRB is synthesized throughout the cell cycle and phosphorylated in a phase specific manner: the predominant proteins in G0/G1 are the unphosphorylated species (110 kD) whereas phosphorylated pRb (112-114 kD) are in S and G2. 110 kD pRb binds transcription factors and prevents transcription of responsive genes such as the gene for thymidine kinase, which are expressed in late G1. The precise mechanisms controlling cell arrest are unknown, but recent data suggest that cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors such as p16 may play a role. The aim of the present study was to assess the effect of sodium butyrate on cell cycle staging, thymidine kinase activity, phosphorylation of the pRb protein and expression of p16. We show that sodium butyrate treatment induces differentiation of LS174T colon cancer cells, inhibits thymidine kinase activity concomitantly with induction of pRb dephosphorylation, p16 transcription and cell cycle arrest at G0/G1. Initial dephosphorylation was observed 24 h after treatment of LS174T cells with sodium butyrate, whereas complete shift to the dephosphorylated form was observed 3 days after treatment. Induction of pRb dephosphorylation by sodium butyrate preceded inhibition of growth and the specific cell cycle arrest. RNase protection assay with a p16 specific riboprobe showed undetectable levels in proliferating cells to several fold increase in differentiated colonocytes. In conclusion, the results provide evidence for a specific cellular mechanism of butyrate induced growth arrest and differentiation of a colon cancer cell line.