The effects of propranolol, pindolol and metoprolol on the modification of low density lipoprotein (LDL) by U937 monocyte-like cells, endothelial cells and copper ions were studied by determination of the lipid peroxidation product content and measurement of the relative electrophoretic mobility of the particle. Propranolol and pindolol inhibited LDL oxidation by U937 cells in a dose-dependent manner from 10 to 100 microM, whereas metoprolol had no effect. In the case of LDL modification by endothelial cells, all the three beta-blockers were efficient within the same range of concentrations, and the order of potency was propranolol greater than pindolol greater than metoprolol. In vitro oxidation of LDL in the presence of copper ions was also inhibited by propranolol; pindolol and metoprolol had no significant protective effect in this system. These results concerning the inhibitory action of beta-blockers were confirmed by testing the degradation of modified LDL by J774 macrophages. Although the concentrations of the drugs utilized in this study are relatively high, in long-term treatment beta-blockers might accumulate in target tissues, and the protective effect of propranolol against LDL oxidation might be involved in its inhibitory action on atherosclerosis previously reported in animal models.