Recently, betulinic acid was identified as a highly selective inhibitor of human melanoma growth and was reported to induce apoptosis in these cells. We have investigated the growth-inhibitory properties of this compound alone and in combination with ionizing radiation in a panel of established human melanoma cell lines as well as in normal human melanocytes. Betulinic acid strongly and consistently suppressed the growth and colony-forming ability of all human melanoma cell lines investigated. In combination with ionizing radiation the effect of betulinic acid on growth inhibition was additive in colony-forming assays. Betulinic acid also induced apoptosis in human melanoma cells as demonstrated by Annexin V binding and by the emergence of cells with apoptotic morphology. The growth-inhibitory action of betulinic acid was more pronounced in human melanoma cell lines than in normal human melanocytes. Notably, despite the induction of apoptosis, analysis of the expression of Bcl-2 family members in betulinic-acid-treated cells revealed that expression of the anti-apoptotic protein Mcl-1 was induced. Furthermore, the antiproliferative action of betulinic acid seemed to be independent of the p53 status. The properties of betulinic acid make it an interesting candidate, not only as a single agent but also in combination with radiotherapy. We conclude that the strictly additive mode of growth inhibition in combination with irradiation suggests that the two treatment modalities may function by inducing different cell death pathways or by affecting different target cell populations.