It has been shown that proteasome activity is required for cancer cell survival and consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with decreased cancer risk. Previously, we reported that grape extract could inhibit proteasome activity and induce apoptosis in tumor cells. In this study, we examined the flavonoids apigenin, quercetin, kaempferol and myricetin for their proteasome-inhibitory and apoptosis-inducing abilities in human tumor cells. We report that apigenin and quercetin are much more potent than kaempferol and myricetin at: (i) inhibiting chymotrypsin-like activity of purified 20S proteasome and of 26S proteasome in intact leukemia Jurkat T cells; (ii) accumulating putative ubiquitinated forms of two proteasome target proteins, Bax and Inhibitor of nuclear factor kappabeta-alpha in Jurkat T cells and (iii) inducing activation of caspase-3 and cleavage of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase in Jurkat T cells. The proteasome-inhibitory abilities of these compounds correlated with their apoptosis-inducing potencies. Results from computational modeling of the potential interactions of these flavonoids to the chymotrypsin site (beta5 subunit) of the proteasome were consistent with the obtained proteasome-inhibitory activities. We found that the C(4) carbon may be a site of nucleophilic attack by the OH group of N-terminal threonine of proteasomal beta5 subunit and that the C(3) hydroxyl may alter the ability of these flavonoids to inhibit the proteasome. Finally, apigenin neither effectively inhibited the proteasome activity nor induced apoptosis in non-transformed human natural killer cells. Our results suggested that the proteasome may be a target of these dietary flavonoids in human tumor cells and that inhibition of the proteasome by flavonoids may be one of the mechanisms responsible for their cancer-preventive effects.