Agaricus blazei Murill is a native Brazilian mushroom which functions primarily as an anticancer substance in transplanted mouse tumors. However, the mechanism underlying this function of A. blazei Murill remains obscure. The present study was carried out to investigate the effect of fraction FA-2-b-ss, an RNA-protein complex isolated from A. blazei Murill, on human leukemia HL-60 cells in vitro. Typical apoptotic characteristics were determined by morphological methods using DNA agarose gel electrophoresis and flow cytometry. The growth suppressive effect of fraction FA-2-b-ss on HL-60 cells in vitro occurred in a dose- (5-80 microg/mL) and time-dependent (24-96 h) manner. The proliferation of HL-60 cells (1 x 10(5) cells/mL) treated with 40 microg/mL of fraction FA-2-b-ss for 24-96 h and with 5-80 microg/mL for 96 h resulted in inhibitory rates ranging from 8 to 54.5%, and from 4.9 to 86.3%, respectively. Both telomerase activity determined by TRAP-ELISA and mRNA expression of the caspase-3 gene detected by RT-PCR were increased in HL-60 cells during fraction FA-2-b-ss treatment. The rate of apoptosis correlated negatively with the decrease of telomerase activity (r = 0.926, P < 0.05), but correlated positively with caspase-3 mRNA expression (r = 0.926, P < 0.05). These data show that fraction FA-2-b-ss can induce HL-60 cell apoptosis and that the combined effect of down-regulation of telomerase activity and up-regulation of mRNA expression of the caspase-3 gene could be the primary mechanism of induction of apoptosis. These findings provide strong evidence that fraction FA-2-b-ss could be of interest for the clinical treatment of acute leukemia.