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Estrogen receptors (ERs) α and β are distributed in most tissues of women and men. ERs are bound by estradiol (E2), a natural hormone, and mediate the pleiotropic and tissue-specific effects of E2, such as proliferation of breast epithelial cells or protection and differentiation of neuronal cells. Numerous environmental molecules, called endocrine disrupting compounds, also interact with ERs. Phytoestrogens belong to this large family and are considered potent therapeutic molecules that act through their selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM) activity. Using breast cancer cell lines as a model of estrogen-dependent proliferation and a stably ER-expressing PC12 cell line as a model of neuronal differentiating cells, we studied the SERM activity of major dietary compounds, such as apigenin, liquiritigenin, daidzein, genistein, coumestrol, resveratrol and zearalenone. The ability of these compounds to induce ER-transactivation and breast cancer cell proliferation and enhance Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) -induced neuritogenesis was assessed. Surprisingly, although all compounds were able to activate the ER through an estrogen responsive element reporter gene, they showed differential activity toward proliferation or differentiation. Apigenin and resveratrol showed a partial or no proliferative effect on breast cancer cells but fully contributed to the neuritogenesis effect of NGF. However, daidzein and zearalenone showed full effects on cellular proliferation but did not induce cellular differentiation. In summary, our results suggest that the therapeutic potential of phytoestrogens can diverge depending on the molecule and the phenotype considered. Hence, apigenin and resveratrol might be used in the development of therapeutics for breast cancer and brain diseases.SERM activity of dietary compounds on proliferation and differentiation is studied.All the dietary compounds tested transactivate estrogen receptors.Apigenin and resveratrol could be good candidates for future therapeutics.Daidzein and zearalenone are to be avoided to maintain human health.