Our previous study demonstrated that the in vivo anti-metastatic effect induced by oral administration of ginseng protopanaxadiol saponins was mediated by their metabolic component M1, and that the growth, invasion and migration of tumor cells were inhibited by M1 but not by ginsenosides. Here we investigated the inhibitory mechanism of M1 on the growth of tumor cells. M1 inhibited the proliferation of B16-BL6 mouse melanoma cells in a time- and dose-dependent manner, with accompanying morphological changes at the concentration of 20 microM. In addition, at 40 microM M1 induced apoptotic cell death within 24 h. Fluorescence microscopy revealed that dansyl M1 entered the cytosol and quickly reached the nuclei (approximately 15 min). Western blot analysis revealed that M1 rapidly up-regulated the expression of p27Kip1, but down-regulated the expression of c-Myc and cyclin D1 in a time-dependent manner. Thus, the regulation of apoptosis-related proteins by M1 is responsible for the induction of apoptotic cell death, and this probably leads to the anti-metastatic activity in vivo.