Luteolin, a naturally occurring flavonoid, is abundant in our daily dietary intake. It exhibits a wide spectrum of pharmacological properties, but little is known about its biochemical targets other than the fact that it induces topoisomerase II-mediated apoptosis. In the present study, we show that luteolin completely inhibits the catalytic activity of eukaryotic DNA topoisomerase I at a concentration of 40 microM, with an IC50 of 5 microM. Preincubation of enzyme with luteolin before adding a DNA substrate increases the inhibition of the catalytic activity (IC50=0.66 microM). Treatment of DNA with luteolin before addition of topoisomerase I reduces this inhibitory effect. Subsequent fluorescence tests show that luteolin not only interacts directly with the enzyme but also with the substrate DNA, and intercalates at a very high concentration (>250 microM) without binding to the minor groove. Direct interaction between luteolin and DNA does not affect the assembly of the enzyme-DNA complex, as evident from the electrophoretic mobility-shift assays. Here we show that the inhibition of topoisomerase I by luteolin is due to the stabilization of topoisomerase-I DNA-cleavable complexes. Hence, luteolin is similar to camptothecin, a class I inhibitor, with respect to its ability to form the topoisomerase I-mediated 'cleavable complex'. But, unlike camptothecin, luteolin interacts with both free enzyme and substrate DNA. The inhibitory effect of luteolin is translated into concanavalin A-stimulated mouse splenocytes, with the compound inducing SDS-K+-precipitable DNA-topoisomerase complexes. This is the first report on luteolin as an inhibitor of the catalytic activity of topoisomerase I, and our results further support its therapeutic potential as a lead anti-cancer compound that poisons topoisomerases.