Betulin, a pentacyclic triterpenoid, was isolated from the bark of Betula papyrifera. The antiviral efficacies of betulin on herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2) were evaluated using viral plaque reduction assays on Vero cells. The results indicate that betulin is active against both HSV-1 and HSV-2 infections with the 50% effective concentrations (EC(50)) of 0.40 and 4.15 microg/ml, respectively. The cytotoxicity of betulin was examined on Vero cells using a neutral red uptake assay. The 50% cytotoxic concentration (CC(50)) of betulin was 73.1 microg/ml. A synergistic antiviral effect between betulin and acyclovir (ACV) was determined by drug combination studies. Strong and moderate synergistic antiviral effects were observed for betulin and ACV against HSV-1 when the concentrations of ACV and betulin were higher than 0.068 and 0.4 microg/ml, respectively. At the concentrations lower than these, additive effect was found. Synergistic antiviral effects were also found against HSV-2 at higher concentrations than for HSV-1, i.e. 0.45 microg/ml of ACV combined with 8.4 microg/ml of betulin.