Polyphenols are ubiquitous substances in the diet. Their anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral effects are of interest for human health, and polyphenols such as luteolin are used at high concentrations in food supplements. The aim of this project was to determine the intrinsic effects of luteolin in H4IIE rat hepatoma cells. Luteolin is relatively toxic, cell death was caused via induction of apoptosis as detected by DNA-ladder formation, by nuclear fragmentation and activation of apoptotic enzymes (caspase-2, -3/7, -9 and -8/10). Luteolin (250 microM, 24 h) increased the caspase-3/7 activity four-fold and the caspase-9 activity six-fold. In a time course experiment caspase-9 is activated after 6h, while caspase-2 and -3/7 are activated after 12 h. After 24 h, caspase-8/10 also displays activation. We found a concentration-dependent increase in malondialdehyde release suggesting a prooxidative effect of luteolin. Furthermore, we analysed DNA strand break formation by luteolin and found a distinct increase of DNA strand breaks after incubation for 3h with 100 microM luteolin, a concentration which induces oligonucleosomal DNA cleavage at 24h. In conclusion, the sequence of events is compatible with the assumption that luteolin triggers the mitochondrial pathway of apoptosis, probably by inducing DNA damage.