Citral, 3,7-dimethyl-2,6-octadien-1-al, a key component of the lemon-scented essential oils extracted from several herbal plants such as lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), melissa (Melissa officinalis), verbena (Verbena officinalis) is used as a food additive and as a fragrance in cosmetics. In this study, we investigated the anti-cancer potential of citral and its mode of action. Concentrations of 44.5 muM, comparable to the concentration of citral in a cup of tea prepared from 1 g of lemon grass, induced apoptosis in several hematopoietic cancer cell lines. Apoptosis was accompanied by DNA fragmentation and caspase-3 catalytic activity induction. Citral activity (22.25 microM) was compared to a reference compound like staurosporine (0.7 microM), in respect to DNA fragmentation and caspase-3 enzymatic activity. The apoptotic effect of citral depended on the alpha,beta-unsaturated aldehyde group.