The sesquiterpene parthenolide (PRT) is an active component of Mexican-Indian medicinal plants and also of the common herb of European origin feverfew. PRT is considered to be a specific inhibitor of NF-kappaB. Human leukemic HL-60, Jurkat, and Jurkat IkappaBalphaM cells, the latter expressing a dominant-negative IkappaBalpha and thus having non-functional NF-kappaB, were treated with PRT and activation of caspases, plasma membrane integrity, DNA fragmentation, chromatin condensation (probed by DNA susceptibility to denaturation), and changes in cell morphology were determined. As a positive control for apoptosis cells were treated with topotecan (TPT) and H2O2. At 2-8 microM concentration PRT induced transient cell arrest in G2 and M followed by apoptosis. A narrow range of PRT concentration (2-10 microM) spanned its cytostatic effect, induction of apoptosis and induction of necrosis. In fact, necrotic cells were often seen concurrently with apoptotic cells at the same PRT concentration. Atypical apoptosis was characterized by loss of plasma membrane integrity very shortly after caspases activation. In contrast, a prolonged phase of caspase activation with preserved integrity of plasma membrane was seen during apoptosis induced by TPT or H2O2. Necrosis induced by PRT was also atypical, characterized by rapid rupture of plasma membrane and no increase in DNA susceptibility to denaturation. Using Jurkat cells with inactive NF-kappaB we demonstrate that cell cycle arrest and the mode of cell death induced by PRT were not caused by inhibition of NF-kappaB. The data suggest that regardless of caspase activation PRT targets plasma membrane causing its destruction. A caution, therefore, should be exercised in interpreting data of the experiments in which PRT is used with the intention to specifically prevent activation of NF-kappaB.