Macrophage death may play a crucial role in the progression of atherosclerotic lesions. Here we present evidence that CD36 is involved in oxidized LDL (OxLDL)-induced apoptosis in human monocyte-derived macrophages. Anti-CD36 mAb SMO and OKM-5 reduced the number of apoptotic cells in OxLDL-treated macrophages by more than 94%, but they did not block ceramide-triggered apoptosis. Thrombospondin inhibited the induction of apoptosis by OxLDL in a dose-dependent manner with an IC50 of 10-30 microM. OxLDL did not induce apoptosis in CD36-negative macrophages, demonstrating the essential role of this scavenger receptor in OxLDL-triggered programmed cell death. Neither anti-CD36 Ig nor thrombospondin triggered programmed cell death suggesting that binding to CD36 alone is not sufficient to initiate apoptosis. However, inhibitors of OxLDL-induced apoptosis did not block the uptake of 3H-labeled OxLDL. In contrast, acetylated LDL and polyinosinic acid, ligands of scavenger receptor A (SRA), inhibited uptake of 3H-labeled OxLDL by 65 and 49%, respectively, but did not block OxLDL-induced apoptosis, indicating that SRA is not involved in this process. OxLDL also stimulated caspase-3 activity in human macrophages. Activation of caspase-3 was blocked by anti-CD36 Ig and the caspase-3 inhibitor Z-DEVD-FMK. These results suggest that binding of OxLDL to CD36 initiates a yet unknown OxLDL-specific signaling event, which leads to the rapid activation of caspase-3 resulting in apoptosis of human macrophages. Our data demonstrate a novel role for CD36 in macrophage biology with likely consequences for the development of atherosclerotic lesions.