Ornithine decarboxylase (ODC), a key enzyme in mammalian polyamine biosynthesis, has been proposed to be a marker of colonic epithelial cell proliferation and risk for colorectal cancer. We investigated the basal levels of ODC activity in sigmoid and rectal mucosae, and basal and tumor promoter 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate-induced levels of skin ODC activity in individuals with a personal history of colon cancer (n = 9 colon; n = 58 skin), a family history of nonpolyposis hereditary colorectal cancer (n = 49; n = 42), adenomas (n = 16; n = 40), and healthy, family history-negative control subjects (n = 40; n = 79). Using a fresh tissue assay and samples obtained after a standard colon lavage preparation, colon mucosal ODC levels ranged from 0 to 192 pmol/mg/h (sigmoid, 0-163 pmol/mg/h; mean, 36 +/- 32 pmol/mg/h; rectum, 0-192 pmol/mg/h; mean, 35 +/- 32 pmol/mg/h). No differences among the four groups of subjects were found for either colon or skin ODC levels, and there were no sex differences overall or in any group. These results are not compatible with the suggestion that ODC levels are a useful marker of risk for colorectal cancer.