The molecular structure of human ocular lens fiber cell plasma membranes was examined directly using small angle x-ray diffraction approaches. A distinct biochemical feature of these membranes is their high relative levels of free cholesterol; the mole ratio of cholesterol to phospholipid (C/P) measured in these membranes ranges from 1 to 4. The organization of cholesterol in this membrane system is not well understood, however. In this study, the structure of plasma membrane samples isolated from nuclear (3.3 C/P) and cortical (2.4 C/P) regions of human lenses was evaluated with x-ray diffraction approaches. Meridional diffraction patterns obtained from the oriented membrane samples demonstrated the presence of an immiscible cholesterol domain with a unit cell periodicity of 34.0 A, consistent with a cholesterol monohydrate bilayer. The dimensions of the sterol-rich domains remained constant over a broad range of temperatures (5-20 degrees C) and relative humidity levels (31-97%). In contrast, dimensions of the surrounding sterol-poor phase were significantly affected by experimental conditions. Similar structural features were observed in membranes reconstituted from fiber cell plasma membrane lipid extracts. The results of this study indicate that the lens fiber cell plasma membrane is a complex structure consisting of separate sterol-rich and -poor domains. Maintenance of these separate domains may be required for the normal function of lens fiber cell plasma membrane and may interfere with the cataractogenic aggregation of soluble lens proteins at the membrane surface.