Caco-2 cells differentiate spontaneously when cultured in confluence and on exposure to the physiologically relevant short-chain fatty acid, butyrate. This study aimed to compare the phenotype induced by these pathways and their relations to cell turnover. Caco-2 cells were treated with butyrate at a nontoxic concentration of 2 mM for 3 days, or allowed to spontaneously differentiate for 0-21 days. Brush border hydrolase activities and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) expression, transepithelial resistance and dome formation, expression of components of the urokinase system, and cell turnover by flow cytometry, and the degree of DNA fragmentation were quantified. Butyrate induced increases in alkaline phosphatase activity and CEA expression but not the activities of other hydrolases, while culture alone induced progressive increases in the activities/expression of all markers. Butyrate induced a significantly greater increase in transepithelial resistance (TER) than occurred during culture alone but the densities of domes were similar. Butyrate induced a ninefold increase in urokinase receptor expression and twofold increase in urokinase activity, while culture alone induced a significantly smaller increase in receptor expression, an increase in plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 but no change in activity. While both stimuli induced cell cycle arrest, only butyrate increased the proportion of cells undergoing apoptosis. In conclusion, differentiation of Caco-2 cells can proceed along multiple pathways but does not necessarily lead to apoptosis. The phenotypic changes during spontaneous differentiation mimic those that occur in normal colonic epithelial cells in vivo during their migration from the crypt base to neck, while butyrate-induced effects more closely follow those occurring when normal colonic epithelial cells migrate from crypt neck to the surface compartment.