Exposure to airborne particulate matter (PM)2.5, a PM with aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 µm, is known to be associated with a variety of adverse health effects. However, the molecular mechanisms involved in fine PM toxicity are still not well characterized. The present study aims to provide new insights into the cytotoxicity of PM2.5 on human lung epithelial cells (A549) at the proteomic level. Two-dimensional difference gel electrophoresis revealed a total of 27 protein spots, whose abundance were significantly altered in A549 cells exposed to water-soluble PM2.5 extracts (WSPE). Among these, 12 spots were upregulated while 15 were downregulated. Twenty-two proteins were further identified by matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight tandem mass/mass spectrometry and database search. The results revealed that oxidative stress, metabolic disturbance, dysregulation of signal transduction, aberrant protein synthesis and degradation, as well as cytoskeleton disorganization are major factors contributing to WSPE-mediated toxicity in human lung cells. It is further proposed that induction of apoptosis through p53, c-Myc and p21 pathways may be one of the key toxicological events occurred in A549 cells under WSPE stress. The data obtained here will aid our understanding of the toxic mechanisms related to PM2.5, and develop useful biomarkers indicative of inhalable PM2.5 exposure. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.