Curcumin, widely used as a spice and coloring agent in food, possesses potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor promoting activities. In the present study, curcumin was found to induce apoptotic cell death in promyelocytic leukemia HL-60 cells at concentrations as low as 3.5 micrograms/ml. The apoptosis-inducing activity of curcumin appeared in a dose- and time-dependent manner. Flow cytometric analysis showed that the hypodiploid DNA peak of propidium iodide-stained nuclei appeared at 4 h after 7 micrograms/ml curcumin treatment. The apoptosis-inducing activity of curcumin was not affected by cycloheximide, actinomycin D, EGTA, W7 (calmodulin inhibitor), sodium orthovanadate, or genistein. By contrast, an endonuclease inhibitor ZnSO4 and proteinase inhibitor N-tosyl-L-lysine chloro-methyl ketone (TLCK) could markedly abrogate apoptosis induced by curcumin, whereas 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) had a partial effect. The antioxidants, N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC), L-ascorbic acid, alpha-tocopherol, catalase and superoxide dismutase, all effectively prevented curcumin-induced apoptosis. This result suggested that curcumin-induced cell death was mediated by reactive oxygen species. Immunoblot analysis showed that the level of the antiapoptotic protein Bcl-2 was decreased to 30% after 6 h treatment with curcumin, and was subsequently reduced to 20% by a further 6 h treatment. Furthermore, overexpression of bcl-2 in HL-60 cells resulted in a delay of curcumin-treated cells entering into apoptosis, suggesting that bcl-2 plays a crucial role in the early stage of curcumin-triggered apoptotic cell death.