Background. Curcumin is a spice and a coloring food compound with a promising role in colon cancer prevention. Curcumin protects against development of colon tumors in rats treated with a colon carcinogen, in colon cancer cells curcumin can inhibit cell proliferation and induce apoptosis, it is an anti-oxidant and it can act as an anti-inflammatory agent. The aim of this study was to elucidate mechanisms and effect of curcumin in colon cancer cells using gene expression profiling. Methods. Gene expression changes in response to curcumin exposure were studied in two human colon cancer cell lines, using cDNA microarrays with four thousand human genes. HT29 cells were exposed to two different concentrations of curcumin and gene expression changes were followed in time (3, 6, 12, 24 and 48 hours). Gene expression changes after short-term exposure (3 or 6 hours) to curcumin were also studied in a second cell type, Caco-2 cells. Results. Gene expression changes (>1.5-fold) were found at all time points. HT29 cells were more sensitive to curcumin than Caco-2 cells. Early response genes were involved in cell cycle, signal transduction, DNA repair, gene transcription, cell adhesion and xenobiotic metabolism. In HT29 cells curcumin modulated a number of cell cycle genes of which several have a role in transition through the G2/M phase. This corresponded to a cell cycle arrest in the G2/M phase as was observed by flow cytometry. Functional groups with a similar expression profile included genes involved in phase-II metabolism that were induced by curcumin after 12 and 24 hours. Expression of some cytochrome P450 genes was downregulated by curcumin in HT29 and Caco-2 cells. In addition, curcumin affected expression of metallothionein genes, tubulin genes, p53 and other genes involved in colon carcinogenesis. Conclusions. This study has extended knowledge on pathways or processes already reported to be affected by curcumin (cell cycle arrest, phase-II genes). Moreover, potential new leads to genes and pathways that could play a role in colon cancer prevention by curcumin were identified. © 2004 van Erk et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.