Cordycepin (3'-deoxyadenosine), a pure compound of Cordyceps sinensis, has been illustrated with anti-tumor effects. In the present study, the apoptotic effect of cordycepin on OEC-M1, a human oral squamous cancer cell line, was investigated by morphological observations, cell viability assay, annexin V-FITC analysis and flow cytometry methods. Results demonstrated that the number of rounded-up cell increased as treatment duration of cordycepin (100 microM) increased from 3 to 48 h, and the plasma membrane blebbing could be observed after 12 h treatment. In cell viability assay, cell surviving rate significantly decreased as the dosage and duration of cordycepin treatment increased (P < 0.05). Moreover, phosphatidylserine flipping on cell membrane could be detected with 3, 6 and 12 h cordycepin treatment, which indicated an early apoptotic phenomenon. Furthermore, cell cycle studies illustrated that the percentage of G1 phase cell declined as the dosages of cordycepin increased (10 microM to 5 mM), while the percentages of G2M and subG1 phase cell increased (P < 0.05) in 12, 24 and 48 h cordycepin treatment. These results further confirmed the apoptotic event. In conclusion, cordycepin significantly induced cell apoptotsis in OEC-M1 human oral squamous cancer cells.