Genistein is a specific inhibitor of protein tyrosine kinase (PTK) and is considered as a therapeutic candidate for various cancers. In this paper we investigate the effects of genistein on cell proliferation and differentiation in neuroblastoma (NB) cell lines and its possible mechanism of action. Genistein substantially inhibited the growth of five (N2A, JC, SKNSH, MSN and Lan5) of the six tumor cell lines examined in a dose-dependent manner with an IC50 value of approximately 5 microg/ml. The exception was GC cells. N2A cells were treated with genistein for 6 days and exhibited morphological features of differentiation, as evidenced by the development of dendritic extensions. Terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TDT) histochemical staining showed a significant elevation in darkly stained nuclei in genistein-treated N2A cells compared with controls, indicating the occurrence of apoptosis. Fluorescent quantitation of DNA fragments confirmed apoptosis in genistein-treated N2A cells. To further elucidate the possible mechanisms by which genistein modulates NB cell growth and differentiation we investigated the effect of genistein on the activities of PTK and mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase and N-myc proto-oncogene expression in N2A cells. The results showed that genistein down-regulated intrinsic PTK activity by approximately 33% and inhibited insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-stimulated PTK activity by 75%. The effect of genistein on the intrinsic activity of MAP kinase was insignificant. In addition, genistein significantly reduced N-myc expression in a dose-dependent fashion. Our study suggests that genistein arrests cell growth and induces NB cell differentiation by mediating apoptosis and modulating PTK activity and N-myc proto-oncogene expression.