A novel secondary sponge metabolite, peloruside A (peloruside), isolated from the marine sponge Mycale sp. (New Zealand), was tested for its cytotoxic effects on mammalian cells in culture. The macrolide structure of peloruside is similar to that of the protein kinase C (PKC) activator, bryostatin-1 (bryostatin), both containing a pyranose ring adjacent to a gemdimethyl moiety. Peloruside is a potent inhibitor of cell proliferation. Treatment of different mammalian cell lines with peloruside for 48-96 h gave IC50 values ranging from 4 to 15 nM, using the colorimetric 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5 diphenyl tetrazolium (MTT) cell proliferation assay. Peloruside was shown to be both cytostatic and cytotoxic by trypan blue dye exclusion tests. Peloruside induced apoptosis in a dose-dependent manner in murine (32D) and human (HL-60) myeloid cell lines, revealed by DNA laddering in agarose gels and flow cytometric analysis of annexin-V- and propidium iodide-stained cells. Treatment of HL-60 cells caused vacuolisation, partial substrate adherence, and the appearance of multi-lobed nuclei, suggesting the induction of a differentiation pathway. Vacuolisation was also observed in a human lung cancer cell line (H441). Opening of the pyranose ring of peloruside by sodium borohydride reduction increased the 48 h IC50 value by 26-fold in 32D cells, suggesting a similar active site to that proposed for bryostatin. However, unlike bryostatin, peloruside failed to bind to PKC in HL-60 cells and was unable to synergize with the calcium ionophore, ionomycin, or with interleukin-2, to activate T-lymphocytes in culture. In summary, although structurally similar to bryostatin, peloruside is a potent inhibitor of cell proliferation, has apoptosis-inducing properties and has a unique mode of action independent of PKC.