Lowering the growth temperature of HepG2 cells from 37 degrees C to 20 degrees C results in a 73% reduction in human squalene synthase (HSS) protein, a 76% reduction in HSS mRNA, and a 96% reduction in promoter activity of a secreted alkaline phosphatase-HSS reporter gene. A similar decrease in either mRNA or protein levels is observed for 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl CoA reductase, farnesyl diphosphate synthase, the LDL receptor, and fatty acid synthase. All these proteins and mRNAs show either a decrease or a complete loss of sterol-dependent regulation in cells grown at 20 degrees C. In contrast, sterol regulatory element binding proteins (SREBPs)-1 and -2 exhibit a 2- to 3-fold increase in mRNA levels at 20 degrees C. The membrane-bound form of the SREBPs is dramatically increased, but the proteolytic processing to the nuclear (N-SREBP) form is inhibited under these conditions. Overexpression of the N-SREBP or SREBP cleavage-activating protein (SCAP), but not site-1 or site-2 proteases, restores the activation of the HSS promoter at 20 degrees C, most likely by liberating the SCAP-SREBP complex so that it can move to the Golgi for processing. These results indicate that the cholesterol synthesizing machinery is down-regulated at low temperatures, and points to the transport of the SCAP-SREBP complex to the Golgi as the specific down-regulated step.