Chalcones are precursor compounds for flavonoid synthesis in plants, and they can also be synthesized in laboratory. Previous study has documented some of the pharmacological applications of these compounds. Estrogen has long been associated with the initiation and promotion of breast cancer. Inhibiting estrogen synthesis can be effective in the prevention and treatment of the disease. Since most breast cancers received estrogen supplied from local tissues, we employed a breast cancer cell line expressing aromatase to screen for the inhibitory potentials of five hydroxychalcones, i.e. 2-hydroxychalcone, 2'-hydroxychalcone, 4-hydroxychalcone, 4,2',4'-trihydroxy-chalcone (isoquiritigenin), 3,4,2',4'-tetrahydroxychalcone (butein). In the preliminary results, butein was found to be the strongest inhibitor among the tested compounds, and its IC(50) value was 3.75 microM. Subsequent enzyme kinetic study revealed that butein acted on aromatase with a mixed type of inhibition and the K(i) value was determined to be 0.32 microM. Cell proliferation assay indicated that the cell number increased by 10 nM-testosterone treatment was significantly reduced by 5 microM butein, and the administration of flutamide could not reverse the effect. The present study illustrated that butein was an aromatase inhibitor and a potential natural alternative for the chemoprevention or therapy of breast cancer.