Fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEEs) are esterification products of ethanol and fatty acids which have been found particularly in the organ damaged by ethanol abuse. To evaluate any effect of FAEEs on HepG2 cells, we added FAEEs to cell culture medium. Electrophoresis of DNA from HepG2 cells exposed to 18.5 muM ethyl palmitate (EP) and 10.6 muM ethyl stearate (ES) for 24 h revealed a smear which is typical of non-specific degradation by DNA ladder assay. Apoptosis was characterized by electron microscopy, flow cytometry revealed that the cell cycle of HepG2 cells was perturbed by exposure to FAEEs. In the present study we demonstrate that treatment of HepG2 cells with EP and ES induces apoptosis, as well as perturbing the cell cycle as the number of cells in the G(2)/M and S phases decreased. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.