In human colon carcinoma cells (HT-29 cells), L-arginine is the common precursor of L-ornithine which generates polyamines strictly necessary for cellular growth, and nitric oxide which has a strong antiproliferative activity. We show here that proliferative HT-29 cells possess the capacity for de novo synthesis of L-arginine from L-citrulline, but not from L-ornithine. L-Ornithine is apparently not an L-arginine precursor due to the absence of any detectable ornithine carbamoyltransferase activity. In contrast, the newly synthesized L-arginine was competent for urea and thus L-ornithine production in a context of a high putrescine production in the ornithine decarboxylase pathway and a low degradation of this polyamine in the diamine oxidase pathway. However, cells grown in an arginine-free culture medium containing added L-citrulline were unable to reach confluency. Furthermore, the low amount of nitric oxide produced from L-arginine by these cells was apparently not involved in the control of cell growth since inhibition of nitric oxide synthase activity was without effect. On the other hand, the capacity of more differentiated and less proliferative HT-29 cells for de novo L-arginine synthesis from L-citrulline was increased. It is concluded that L-citrulline is a precursor of L-arginine and L-ornithine in proliferative HT-29 cells and that the metabolic fate of L-ornithine in these cells is mainly devoted to polyamine synthesis. The similarity between differentiated HT-29 cells and the enterocytes of newborn animals in terms of L-arginine metabolism is finally discussed.