Promyelocytic leukemic HL-60 cells were incubated with different fatty acids. Arachidonic acid (AA; 20:4, n-6) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; 20:5, n-3) were the most potent inhibitors of proliferation in a dose- dependent way. Retinoic acid (RA) was used as a positive control. Inhibitors of cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase or addition of antioxidants did not influence the effect of EPA or AA on cell proliferation. Increased capacity to generate superoxide anions after phorbol ester treatment and a reduced serglycin messenger RNA level in cells treated with AA or EPA indicated that these fatty acids induced differentiation in HL-60 cells similar to that induced by RA. However, down-regulation of the c-myc mRNA level, also typical for differentiation with RA in HL-60 cells, was not observed in cells incubated with AA or EPA. Flow cytometric analyses showed that in cultures incubated with AA or EPA, the proportion of cells in the G1 phase of the cell cycle increased. Similar effects were observed with RA. By flow cytometry and light scatter analyses it could be shown that AA made 8% of the cells apoptotic and 7% necrotic. The corresponding numbers were 21% and 10% for RA-treated cells, and 19% and 32% for EPA- treated cells. The present study shows that AA and EPA reduce the proliferation rate of HL-60 cells. This is mediated by mechanisms independent of eicosanoids or lipid peroxidation products and is due to effects both on apoptosis/necrosis and cell differentiation.