Liverwort constituents have been reported to exert a broad spectrum of biological activities. In this study, we used a bioactivity-guided separation of an extract from the liverwort species Marchantia emarginata subsp. tosana to determine its anticancer activity. A high level of the active ingredient was isolated from this liverwort and its chemical structure was identified and characterized by various spectra. It was found to be identical to a well-known compound, marchantin A, a cyclic bisbibenzyl ether. However, no anticancer activities of this compound have previously been reported. We found that marchantin A efficiently induced cell growth inhibition in human MCF-7 breast cancer cells, with an IC50 of 4.0 μg/mL. Fluorescence microscopy and a Western blot analysis indicated that marchantin A actively induced apoptosis of MCF-7 cells. The levels of cleaved caspase-8, cleaved caspase-3, cleaved caspase-9, and cleaved poly (ADP ribose) polymerase (PARP) increased. However, the level of Bid markedly decreased in a dose- and time-dependent manner. We also evaluated the anticancer activities of marchantin A on the regulation of cell cycle regulators such as p21, p27, cyclin B1, and cyclin D1. The p21 and p27 gene expressions increased markedly while cyclin B1 and D1 gene expression decreased markedly by treatment with marchantin A. Many report demonstrated that liverwort was suggested to possess potent antioxidant activity. Our results indicate that marchantin A possesses free radical-scavenging activity (EC50 = 20 μg/mL). Taken together, for the first time, the compound marchantin A from liverworts demonstrated to be a potent inducer of apoptosis in MCF-7 cells.
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