CAY-1, a novel saponin from Capsicum frutescens (commercially known as cayenne pepper) was investigated to determine its in vitro antifungal activity, mechanism of action and mammalian cell cytotoxicity. CAY-1 was active against 16 different fungal strains, including Candida spp. and Aspergillus fumigatus [minimum inhibitory concentrations (MIC) ranging from 4 to 16 microg ml(-1)], and was especially active against Cryptococcus neoformans (90% inhibition at 1 microg ml(-1)). Synergistic activity was also observed between CAY-1 and amphotericin B against Candida albicans and A. fumigatus. No significant cytotoxicity was demonstrated when CAY-1 was tested against 55 mammalian cell lines at up to 100 microg ml(-1). Importantly, CAY-1 appears to act by disrupting the membrane integrity of fungal cells.