Since melatonin, the major hormone of the pineal gland, has been shown to inhibit the growth of mammary tumors in animal models of human breast cancer, we examined the hypothesis that this indoleamine has the potential to inhibit breast cancer growth by directly inhibiting cell proliferation as exemplified by the growth of the estrogen-responsive human breast cancer cell line MCF-7 in culture. Concentrations of melatonin (10(-9) M; 10(-11) M), corresponding to the physiological levels present in human blood during the evening hours, significantly inhibited (P less than 0.001) cell proliferation by as much as 60% to 78% as measured by either DNA content or hemocytometer cell counts. Melatonin's inhibitory effect was reversible since the logarithmic growth of MCF-7 cells was restored after melatonin-containing medium was replaced with fresh medium lacking melatonin. Not only was the inhibitory effect of melatonin absent at either pharmacological (10(-7) M; 10(-5) M) or subphysiological (10(-15) M; 10(-13) M) concentrations, but melatonin also failed to inhibit the proliferation of either human foreskin fibroblasts or the estrogen receptor-positive human endometrial cancer cell line RL95-2. Both transmission and scanning electron microscopy revealed several morphological changes that correlated with melatonin's inhibition of cell growth. After just 4 days of exposure to melatonin, MCF-7 cells exhibited reduced numbers of surface microvilli, nuclear swelling, cytoplasmic and ribosomal shedding, disruption of mitochondrial cristae, vesiculation of the smooth endoplasmic reticulum, and an increase in the numbers of autophagic vacuoles. These results support the hypothesis that melatonin, at physiological concentrations, exerts a direct but reversible, antiproliferative effect on MCF-7 cell growth in culture. This antiproliferative effect is associated with striking changes in the ultrastructural features of these cells suggestive of a sublethal but reversible cellular injury.