The aim of this study was to investigate the mechanism of flavonoid-induced apoptosis in HL-60 leukaemic cells. Thus, the effect of structurally related flavonoids on cell viability, DNA fragmentation and caspase activity was assessed. Loss of membrane potential and reactive oxygen species generation were also monitored by flow cytometry. The structurally related flavonoids, such as apigenin, quercetin, myricetin, and kaempferol were able to induce apoptosis in human leukaemia HL-60 cells. Treatment with flavonoids (60 microM) caused a rapid induction of caspase-3 activity and stimulated proteolytic cleavage of poly-(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP). Furthermore, these flavonoids induced loss of mitochondrial transmembrane potential, elevation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, release of mitochondrial cytochrome c into the cytosol, and subsequent induction of procaspase-9 processing. The potency of these flavonoids on these features of apoptosis were in the order of: apigenin > quercetin > myricetin > kaempferol in HL-60 cells treated with 60 microM flavonoids. These results suggest that flavonoid-induced apoptosis is stimulated by the release of cytochrome c to the cytosol, by procaspase-9 processing, and through a caspase-3-dependent mechanism. The induction of apoptosis by flavonoids may be attributed to their cancer chemopreventive activity. Furthermore, the potency of flavonoids for inducing apoptosis may be dependent on the numbers of hydroxyl groups in the 2-phenyl group and on the absence of the 3-hydroxyl group. This provides new information on the structure-activity relationship of flavonoids.