Pingyangmycin (PYM; Bleomycin A(5)), an antitumour antibiotic is currently used during anticancer therapy. Previous experiments demonstrated that the therapeutic efficiency of PYM for treatment of malignant tumours is considered to be related to its ability to cause DNA strand breaks in vitro. However, very little is known about the interaction of PYM with the target cells, and it is still unclear how PYM enters the cells. In this study, cell death induced by PYM was studied in a human squamous cell carcinoma cell line (KB cells). In order to determine if cell death occurred by necrosis (reproductive cell death) or apoptosis (programmed cell death), KB cells were exposed to different concentrations of PYM and evaluated by biochemical and morphological criteria. Our results indicate that KB cells displayed an arrest in the G(2)-M phase of the cell cycle and became enlarged and polynucleated before dying at the low concentrations of PYM. In contrast, when cells were exposed to high concentrations of PYM, morphological changes identical to those usually associated with apoptosis were observed as well as internucleosomal digestion of genomic DNA. In conclusion, we demonstrate that PYM is able to induce two distinct modes of cell death depending on the doses of PYM.