Genistein (5,7,4'-trihydroxyisoflavone), one of two major isoflavonoids in soy, has anti-proliferative effects on mitogen-stimulated cell growth of human breast cancer cells in culture and is a candidate for use in the prevention of breast cancer. Soy protein preparations containing isoflavonoid conjugates have chemopreventive activity in carcinogen-induced rat models of breast cancer. Recent experiments in these models with purified genistein have revealed that the timing of the exposure of rats to this isoflavonoid is critical. Rats treated neonatally or prepuberally with genistein have a longer latency before the appearance of 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene-induced mammary tumors and a marked reduction in tumor number. The mechanism of genistein's preventive action is in part dependent on its estrogenic activity, which causes a more rapid differentiation of the cells of the mammary gland, analogous to the effects of an early pregnancy. Rats administered genistein after 35 days of age have smaller alterations in breast cancer risk, with a maximum reduction in mammary tumor number of 27%. In ovariectomized nude mice, dietary genistein increases cell proliferation of human breast cancer MCF-7 cell xenografts compared with a control diet. This estrogen-like effect of genistein is not observed in non-ovariectomized rats. Future studies on the anticancer potential of soy isoflavonoids should examine their interaction with other phytochemical components of soybeans and exploit newly developed animal models of breast cancer in which specific genes have been activated or inactivated.