Berberine, an alkaloid initially isolated from Chinese herbal medicine exhibited the ability to induce morphological changes and internucleosomal DNA fragmentation, characteristic of apoptosis in promyelocytic leukemia HL-60 cells. Cell cycle studies showed that only about 20% of the cells underwent apoptosis at the early time (6 h) of berberine (25 μg/ml) treatment; these appeared to be cells in S phase at the time of berberine treatment. At extended time (6–48 h), cells were cell cycle arrested, the number of cells of each phase, particularly the cells of S phase decreased and much more (> 50%) of the cells appeared with DNA content less than G1. Attempts were also made to isolate possible berberine-DNA complexes from cell cultures treated with berberine (25 μg/ml; 2–24 h). Shifts of absorption maxima of berberine in the direction of longer wavelengths were observed in the isolated berberine-DNA complexes. Palmatine, an analog of berberine, which was not able to induce apoptosis, also complexed with DNA in cells treated with palmatine (25 μg/ml; 2–24 h). Our results suggest that some important cellular processes other than the intracellular DNA-interacting action of berberine may be involved in the berberine-induced apoptosis in HL-60 cells.