The efficacy of the diphenol curcumin as a cancer chemopreventive agent is limited by its chemical and metabolic instability. Non-enzymatic degradation has been described to yield vanillin, ferulic acid, and feruloylmethane through cleavage of the heptadienone chain connecting the phenolic rings. Here we provide evidence for an alternative mechanism, resulting in autoxidative cyclization of the heptadienone moiety as a major pathway of degradation. Autoxidative transformation of curcumin was pH-dependent with the highest rate at pH 8 (2.2 μM/min) and associated with stoichiometric uptake of O(2). Oxidation was also catalyzed by recombinant cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) (50 nm; 7.5 μM/min), and the rate was increased ≈10-fold by the addition of 300 μM H(2)O(2). The COX-2 catalyzed transformation was inhibited by acetaminophen but not indomethacin, suggesting catalysis occurred by the peroxidase activity. We propose a mechanism of enzymatic or autoxidative hydrogen abstraction from a phenolic hydroxyl to give a quinone methide and a delocalized radical in the heptadienone chain that undergoes 5-exo cyclization and oxygenation. Hydration of the quinone methide (measured by the incorporation of O-18 from H(2)(18)O) and rearrangement under loss of water gives the final dioxygenated bicyclopentadione product. When curcumin was added to RAW264.7 cells, the bicyclopentadione was increased 1.8-fold in cells activated by LPS; vanillin and other putative cleavage products were negligible. Oxidation to a reactive quinone methide is the mechanistic basis of many phenolic anti-cancer drugs. It is possible, therefore, that oxidative transformation of curcumin, a prominent but previously unrecognized reaction, contributes to its cancer chemopreventive activity.