Most antitumour agents with cytotoxic properties induce apoptosis. The lipophilic compound euplotin C, isolated from the ciliate Euplotes crassus, is toxic to a number of different opportunistic or pathogenic microorganisms, although its mechanism of action is currently unknown. We report here that euplotin C is a powerful cytotoxic and pro-apoptotic agent in mouse AtT-20 and rat PC12 tumour-derived cell lines. In addition, we provide evidence that euplotin C treatment results in rapid activation of ryanodine receptors, depletion of Ca2+ stores in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), the release of cytochrome c from the mitochondria, activation of caspase-12, and activation of caspase-3, leading to apoptosis. Intracellular Ca2+ overload is an early event which induces apoptosis and is parallelled by ER stress and the release of cytochrome c, whereas caspase-12 may be activated by euplotin C at a later stage in the apoptosis pathway. These events, either independently or concomitantly, lead to the activation of the caspase-3 and its downstream effectors, triggering the cell to undergo apoptosis. These results demonstrate that euplotin C may be considered for the design of cytotoxic and pro-apoptotic new drugs.