Epidemiological studies have suggested that increased soy consumption is associated with reduced cancer occurrence. Genistein, a soy isoflavone, has been reported to inhibit the growth of human tumor cells although the involved molecular mechanisms are not clearly defined. Here we report that genistein inhibits the proteasomal chymotrypsin-like activity in vitro and in vivo. Computational docking studies suggest that the interaction of genistein with the proteasomal beta 5 subunit is responsible for inhibition of the chymotrypsin-like activity. Inhibition of the proteasome by genistein in prostate cancer LNCaP and breast cancer MCF-7 cells is associated with accumulation of ubiquitinated proteins and three known proteasome target proteins, the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p27(Kip1), inhibitor of nuclear factor-kappa B (I kappa B-alpha), and the pro-apoptotic protein Bax. Genistein-mediated proteasome inhibition was accompanied by induction of apoptosis in these solid tumor cells. Finally, genistein induced proteasome inhibition and apoptosis selectively in simian virus 40-transformed human fibroblasts, but not in their parental normal counterpart. Our results suggest that the proteasome is a potential target of genistein in human tumor cells and that inhibition of the proteasome activity by genistein might contribute to its cancer-preventive properties.