Human aortic medial smooth muscle cells (SMC) and umbilical vein endothelial cells (EC) in culture were exposed to various concentrations of plasma low density (LDL) and high density (HDL) lipoproteins prepared from normolipemic donors in order to assess their effects on cell growth. So that the effects of each lipoprotein could be evaluated separately and in combination, lipoproteins were added to culture medium containing lipoprotein deficient serum (LPDS, d greater than 1.25 g/ml at a protein concentration of 4.5 mg/ml of medium). The addition of LDL at cholesterol concentrations of 160 microgram/ml of culture medium, resulted in significant reductions in both the number of SMC and EC cells per dish within 3 days of exposure (P less than 0.001, SMC; P less than 0.01, EC), when compared with LPDS controls and the starting cell numbers. This cytotoxic phenomenon was dose-related, and only at LDL cholesterol concentrations equal to or below 50 microgram/ml were no marked changes observed. In contrast, HDL at all concentrations tested produced no such deleterious effects. Autoradiographic assessment of DNA synthesis confirmed these findings. After 48 h of continuous exposure to tritiated thymidine, labeling indexes reached much lower plateaus in the LDL-treated groups.