The cytotoxic effect of crotoxin, a heterodimeric phospholipase A2 from the venom of Crotalus durissus terrificus, was examined on murine erythroleukemia cells in vitro. Crotoxin cytocidal effect on cell growth had an EC50 of approximately 0.1-0.2 microM (3.0-5.0 micrograms/ml) in serum-free medium. Cytotoxicity was independent of cell growth since both quiescent and proliferating cells had similar sensitivities to the toxin. Dissociation of the crotoxin complex and phospholipase A2 activity of its subunit B are required for cytotoxicity, since the covalently linked crotoxin complex or the specific alkylation of the active site on the subunit B abolish the cytotoxic activity on murine erythroleukemia cells. Specific interaction between crotoxin and murine erythroleukemia cells appears to be required since the homologous phospholipase A2 from Crotalus atrox venom, with a higher phospholipase A2 specific activity than crotoxin, was 86-fold less potent than crotoxin. The data in this report show that the cytotoxic effect of crotoxin on murine erythroleukemia cells is consistent with the specific binding of the toxin resulting in cytocidal action mediated by the phospholipase A2 activity of crotoxin subunit B.