There has been considerable debate about how copper status may affect the biochemical and cellular processes associated with atherogenesis. In the present study we have attempted to address this issue directly by investigating the effects of dietary copper supplementation on processes likely to contribute to atherogenesis, using the cholesterol-fed New Zealand White rabbit model. Age matched rabbits (n = 16) were fed a 0.25-1% cholesterol diet to maintain plasma cholesterol concentrations at approximately 30 mmol/l. Eight of these animals also received 0.2% copper acetate. Control animals (n = 8) received rabbit chow without supplements. After 13 weeks on the experimental diets the animals were killed. Integrated cholesterol levels were similar for the cholesterol-fed animals (31.1+/-2.5 vs. 29.9+/-1.9 mmol/l weeks; P>0.05). Although integrated plasma copper levels were higher in the animals receiving the copper supplements, these did not differ significantly (19.0+/-4.8 vs. 15.1+/-2.9 micromol/l weeks; P>0.05). Tissue concentrations of copper were higher in the copper fed animals compared to those on cholesterol alone in aortic 14.0+/-0.75 vs. 1.8+/-0.2 microg/g wet tissue; P<0.05), carotid artery (11.4+/-3.5 vs. 4.9+/-0.9 microg/g wet tissue; P<0.05), and hepatic (332.5+/-28.6 vs. 3.3+/-1.1 microg/g wet tissue; P<0.0001) samples. The concentration of copper within the carotid artery was also significantly higher than that within the aorta (7.5+/-1.8 vs. 2.4+/-0.4 microg/g wet tissue; P<0.05). In animals fed a normal rabbit chow aortic, carotid and hepatic copper concentrations were 3.7+/-0.8, 9.4+/-3.4, and 5.0+/-1.6 microg/g, respectively. These values did not differ significantly from the cholesterol-fed animals (P>0.05). Plasma concentrations of caeruloplasmin, the major copper carrying protein, were estimated as plasma ferroxidase activity and were similar for the groups (P>0.05), as were aortic superoxide dismutase activity levels (P>0.05). Copper supplementation was associated with increased mononuclear cell adhesion to the endothelium of the carotid endothelium, with 2.6+/-0.3 adherent monocytes/1000 endothelial cells in the cholesterol plus copper-fed animals compared to 1.3+/-0.3 in the cholesterol-fed group (P = 0.0006), and 0.1+/-0.1 in the control animals (P<0.002). This may reflect the higher concentrations of copper found within the carotid artery. Histology of the thoracic aorta at the level of the third and sixth intercostal arteries, showed that copper supplementation was associated with significantly smaller intimal lesions (P<0.05 and P<0.01, respectively). These data suggest that copper supplements possibly inhibit the progression of atherogenesis.