Transport and diffusion of molecular oxygen in phosphatidylcholine (PC)-cholesterol membranes and their molecular mechanism were investigated. A special attention was paid to the molecular interaction involving unsaturated alkyl chains and cholesterol. Oxygen transport was evaluated by monitoring the bimolecular collision rate of molecular oxygen and the lipid-type spin labels, tempocholine phosphatidic acid ester, 5-doxylstearic acid, and 16-doxylstearic acid. The collision rate was determined by measuring the spin-lattice relaxation times (T1's) in the presence and absence of molecular oxygen with long-pulse saturation-recovery ESR techniques. In the absence of cholesterol, incorporation of either a cis or trans double bond at the C9-C10 position of the alkyl chain decreases oxygen transport at all locations in the membrane. The activation energy for the translational diffusion of molecular oxygen in the absence of cholesterol is 3.7-6.5 kcal/mol, which is comparable to the activation energy theoretically estimated for kink migration or C-C bond rotation of alkyl chains [Träuble, H. (1971) J. Membr. Biol. 4, 193-208; Pace, R. J., & Chan, S. I. (1982) J. Chem. Phys. 76, 4241-4247]. Intercalation of cholesterol in saturated PC membranes reduces oxygen transport in the headgroup region and the hydrophobic region near the membrane surface but little affects the transport in the central part of the bilayer. In unsaturated PC membranes, intercalation of cholesterol also reduces oxygen transport in and near the headgroup regions. In contrast, it increases oxygen transport in the middle of the bilayer. On the basis of these observations, a model for the mechanism of oxygen transport in the membrane is proposed in which oxygen molecules reside in vacant pockets created by gauche-trans isomerization of alkyl chains and the structural nonconformability of neighboring lipids, unsaturated PC and cholesterol in particular, and oxygen molecules jump from one pocket to the adjacent one or move along with the movement of the pocket itself. The presence of cholesterol decreases oxygen permeability across the membrane in all membranes used in this work in spite of the increase in oxygen transport in the central part of unsaturated PC-cholesterol membranes because cholesterol decreases oxygen transport in and near the headgroup regions, where the major barriers for oxygen permeability are located. Oxygen gradients across the membranes of the cells and the mitochondria are evaluated. Arguments are advanced that oxygen permeation across the protein-rich mitochondrial membranes can be a rate-limiting step for oxygen consumption under hypoxic conditions in vivo.