Most proteins are insensitive to the presence of anaesthetics at concentrations which induce general anaesthesia, while some are inhibited by certain agents but not others. Here we show that, over a 100,000-fold range of potencies, the activity of a pure soluble protein (firefly luciferase) can be inhibited by 50% at anaesthetic concentrations which are essentially identical to those which anaesthetize animals. This identity holds for inhalational agents (such as halothane, methoxyflurane and chloroform), aliphatic and aromatic alcohols, ketones, ethers and alkanes. This finding is all the more striking in view of the fact that the inhibition is shown to be competitive in nature, with anaesthetic molecules competing with substrate (luciferin) molecules for binding to the protein. We show that the anaesthetic-binding site can accommodate only one large, but more than one small, anaesthetic molecule. The obvious mechanism suggested by our results is that general anaesthetics, despite their chemical and structural diversity, act by competing with endogenous ligands for binding to specific receptors.