Biological activities of oxysterols seem tightly regulated. Therefore, the ability to induce cell death of structurally related oxysterols, such as those oxidized at C7(7alpha-, 7beta-hydroxycholesterol, and 7-ketocholesterol), was investigated on U937 cells at different times of treatment in a concentration range of 5-80 microg/ml. Whereas all oxysterols accumulate inside the cells, strong inhibition of cell growth and increased permeability to propidium iodide were observed only with 7beta-hydroxycholesterol and 7-ketocholesterol, which trigger an apoptotic process characterized by the occurrence of cells with fragmented and/or condensed nuclei, and by various cellular dysfunctions: loss of mitochondrial transmembrane potential, cytosolic release of cytochrome c, activation of caspase-9 and -3 with subsequent enhanced activity of caspase-3, degradation of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase, and increased accumulation of cellular C16 : 0 and C24 : 1 ceramide species. This ceramide generation is not attributed to caspase activation since inhibition of 7beta-hydroxycholesterol- and 7-ketocholesterol-induced apoptosis by Z-VAD-fmk (100 microM), a broad spectrum caspase inhibitor, did not reduce C16 : 0 and C24 : 1 ceramide species accumulation. Conversely, when U937 cells were treated with 7beta-hydroxycholesterol and 7-ketocholesterol in the presence of fumonisin B1 (100 microM), a specific inhibitor of ceramide synthase, C16 : 0 and C24 : 1 ceramide species production was completely abrogated whereas apoptosis was not prevented. Noteworthy, 7alpha-hydroxycholesterol induced only a slight inhibition of cell growth. Collectively, these results are consistent with the notion that the alpha or beta hydroxyl radical position of oxysterols oxidized at C7 plays a key role in the induction of the apoptotic process. In addition, our findings demonstrate that 7beta-hydroxycholesterol- and 7-ketocholesterol-induced apoptosis involve the mitochondrial signal transduction pathway and they suggest that C16 : 0 and C24 : 1 ceramide species generated through ceramide synthase play a minor role in the commitment of 7beta-hydroxycholesterol- and 7-ketocholesterol-induced cell death.