Several in vitro studies have suggested that silica nanoparticles (NPs) might induce adverse effects in gut cells. Here, we used the human colon cancer epithelial cell line HCT116 to study the potential cytotoxic effects of ingested silica NPs in the presence or absence of serum. Furthermore, we evaluated different physico-chemical parameters important for the assessment of nanoparticle safety, including primary particle size (12, 70, 200, and 500 nm) and surface modification (–NH2 and –COOH). Silica NPs triggered cytotoxicity, as evidenced by reduced metabolism and enhanced membrane leakage. Automated microscopy revealed that the silica NPs promoted apoptosis and necrosis proportional to the administered specific surface area dose. Cytotoxicity of silica NPs was suppressed by increasing amount of serum and surface modification. Furthermore, inhibition of caspases partially prevented silica NP-induced cytotoxicity. In order to investigate the role of specific cell death pathways in more detail, we used isogenic derivatives of HCT116 cells which lack the pro-apoptotic proteins p53 or BAX. In contrast to the anticancer drug cisplatin, silica NPs induced cell death independent of the p53–BAX axis. ... mehrIn conclusion, silica NPs initiated cell death in colon cancer cells dependent on the specific surface area and presence of serum. Further studies in vivo are warranted to address potential cytotoxic actions in the gut epithelium. The unintended toxicity of silica NPs as observed here could also be beneficial. As loss of p53 in colon cancer cells contributes to resistance against anticancer drugs, and thus to reoccurrence of colon cancer, targeted delivery of silica NPs could be envisioned to also deplete p53 deficient tumor cells.