BACKGROUND: Understanding the molecular mechanisms of complex cellular processes requires unbiased means to identify and to alter conditionally gene products that function in a pathway of interest. Although random mutagenesis and screening (forward genetics) provide a useful means to this end, the complexity of the genome, long generation time and redundancy of gene function have limited their use with mammalian systems. We sought to develop an analogous process using small molecules to modulate conditionally the function of proteins. We hoped to identify simultaneously small molecules that may serve as leads for the development of therapeutically useful agents. RESULTS: We report the results of a high-throughput, phenotype-based screen for identifying cell-permeable small molecules that affect mitosis of mammalian cells. The predominant class of compounds that emerged directly alters the stability of microtubules in the mitotic spindle. Although many of these compounds show the colchicine-like property of destabilizing microtubules, one member shows the taxol-like property of stabilizing microtubules. Another class of compounds alters chromosome segregation by novel mechanisms that do not involve direct interactions with microtubules. CONCLUSIONS: The identification of structurally diverse small molecules that affect the mammalian mitotic machinery from a large library of synthetic compounds illustrates the use of chemical genetics in dissecting an essential cellular pathway. This screen identified five compounds that affect mitosis without directly targeting microtubules. Understanding the mechanism of action of these compounds, along with future screening efforts, promises to help elucidate the molecular mechanisms involved in chromosome segregation during mitosis.