4-hydroxynonenal (HNE) is a major aldehydic product of lipid peroxidation known to exert a multitude of biological, cytotoxic, and signal effects. Mammalian cells possess highly active pathways of HNE metabolism. The metabolic fate of HNE was investigated in various mammalian cells and organs such as hepatocytes, intestinal enterocytes, renal tubular cells, aortic and brain endothelial cells, synovial fibroblasts, neutrophils, thymocytes, heart, and tumor cells. The experiments were carried out at 37 degrees C at initial HNE concentrations between 1 microM--that means in the range of physiological and pathophysiologically relevant HNE levels--to 100 microM. In all cell types which were investigated, 90-95% of 100 microM HNE were degraded within 3 min of incubation. At 1 microM HNE the physiological blood serum level of about 0.1-0.2 microM was restored already after 10-30 s. As primary products of HNE in hepatocytes and other cell types the glutathione-HNE-1:1-conjugate, the hydroxynonenoic acid and the corresponding alcohol of HNE, the 1,4-dihydroxynonene, were identified. Furthermore, the beta-oxidation of hydroxynonenoic acid including the formation of water was demonstrated. The quantitative share of HNE binding to proteins was low with about 2-8% of total HNE consumption. The glycine-cysteine-HNE, cysteine-HNE adducts and the mercapturic acid from glutathione-HNE adduct were not formed in the most cell types, but in kidney cells and neutrophils. The rapid metabolism underlines the role of HNE degrading pathways in mammalian cells as important part of the secondary antioxidative defense mechanisms in order to protect proteins from modification by aldehydic lipid peroxidation products.