The in vitro effects of sodium n-butyrate (butyrate) on the growth, morphology and secretion of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and albumin by the human heptoma cell line PLC/PRF/5 were studied. Butyrate caused a marked reduction in the growth rate, colony forming efficiency in soft agar and de novo synthesis of DNA as well as remarkable morphological changes including cell enlargement, flattening and a decreased number of nucleoli. Secretion of AFP was reduced during culture with butyrate, while that of albumin was increased. The requirement of de novo protein synthesis for the increase in albumin and decrease of AFP by butyrate was demonstrated by inhibition studies with cycloheximide. These results suggest that butyrate caused the hepatoma cells to acquire in vitro properties that are considered to be more consistent with normal liver cells.