Chalcone (1,3-diphenyl-2-propen-1-one) is an aromatic ketone precursor of important molecules in plants such as flavonoids or anthocyanins. Its phytotoxicity has been demonstrated on different plant species, but to date little is known about the mechanisms of action of this secondary metabolite at plant cellular level. Detailed analysis by light and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) was conducted to examine the root meristems' ultrastructure of control and chalcone-treated Arabidopsis seedlings. Mitochondrial dysfunction was analysed by measuring mitochondrial membrane potential with JC-1 fluorochrome. Finally, acridine orange/ethidium bromide staining was used for the detection of programmed cell death. Microscopy revealed tissue alterations, inhibition of root hair formation and important changes after 7 and 14 d at the chalcone IC(50) value. Chalcone-treated cells showed signs of programmed cell death such as mitochondrial condensation, disruption of organelles and chromatin fragmentation. Acridine orange/ethidium bromide staining confirmed the programmed cell death, which could be induced by the reduction of mitochondrial transmembrane potential (ΔΨ(m)) that was detected after chalcone treatment. These results confirm the phytotoxic activity of chalcone on Arabidopsis seedlings, the alteration of mitochondrial membrane potential and the induction of programmed cell death.