Anthocyanins are naturally occurring reddish pigments that abundant in fruits and vegetables. To investigate the mechanistic basis for the anti-tumor properties of anthocyanins, five aglycone (cyanidin, delphinidin, malvidin, pelargonidin, and peonidin) and four glycosylated (cyanidin-3-glucoside, malvidin-3-glucoside, pelargonidin-3-glucoside and peonidin-3-glucoside) anthocyanins were used to examine their effects on cell cycle progression and induction of apoptosis in human gastric adenocarcinoma AGS cells. The data from cell viability assay showed that malvidin exhibited the most potent anti-proliferation effect on AGS cells in a time- and dose-dependent manner (P<0.05). This event is accompanied the arrest of AGS cells at the G0/G1 phase by malvidin at the tested concentrations of 0-200 microM. Cellular uptake of anthocyanin and anthocyanidin was confirmed by HPLC analysis and the intracellular accumulation of malvidin (24.9+/-1.1 microM/mg protein) was observed when treatment of AGS cells with malvidin for 12 h. In addition, an accumulation of AGS cells in sub-G1 phase (20% and 30% increase for 100 and 200 microM of malvidin, respectively) was observed as well as by the appearance of a fraction of cells with an aneudiploid DNA content. The occurrence of apoptosis induced by malvidin was confirmed by morphological and biochemical features, including apoptotic bodies formation, caspase-3 activation and poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase proteolysis. Furthermore, the mitochondrial membrane potential of apoptotic cells after treatment with malvidin was significantly lost and resulted in the elevation of Bax/Bcl-2 ratio for 1.6-fold against control for 100 microM treatment. In addition, the malvidin treatment significantly increased the p38 kinase expression and inhibited the ERK activity, and the effects of malvidin on caspase-3 activation were blocked, respectively, by the ERK and p38 inhibitors. These findings suggest that growth inhibition and cytotoxicity of AGS cells by malvidin is involved in the induction of apoptosis rather than necrosis.