Little is known about the effects of biliary deoxycholic acid on the partitioning of biliary cholesterol between vesicles and micelles and on the rate of nucleation of cholesterol microcrystals, key steps in gallstone formation. Therefore, 43 samples of fresh gallbladder bile were obtained from a heterogeneous group of patients with and without stones. Univariate and multivariate analyses were then applied to determine the inter-relationships between biliary cholesterol saturation, total lipid concentration, and bile acid species and (1) the distribution of biliary cholesterol between vesicles and micelles and (2) the cholesterol microcrystal nucleation time. The percentage of deoxycholic acid in bile was shown to be linearly related to the cholesterol saturation index (r = .54; P < .001), the vesicular cholesterol:phospholipid molar ratio (r = .53; P < .001), and the molar concentration of cholesterol in the vesicles (r = .59; P < .001). The mean proportion of biliary deoxycholic acid conjugates was also greater in patients with rapid nucleation times (23.4 +/- SEM 1.1%) than in those with slow nucleation times (17.3 +/- 1.9%; P < .05). As total bile lipid concentration increased, the proportion of total biliary cholesterol in vesicles decreased (r = .53; P < .001), whereas the molar concentration of vesicular cholesterol increased (r = .42, P < .01). The cholesterol saturation indices, total bile lipid concentration, and proportion of biliary deoxycholate were independent determinants of the molar concentration of cholesterol in vesicles. We conclude that relative increases in the percentage of deoxycholic acid and in bile lipid concentration, favor the partitioning of cholesterol into vesicles. In turn, this leads to an increase in the vesicular cholesterol:phospholipid molar ratio and thus to a decrease in the cholesterol microcrystal nucleation time.