The present study demonstrates for the first time that iron ions can induce lipid peroxidation in intact macrophages without causing cell death. Macrophage lipid peroxidation increases cell-mediated oxidation of LDL, enhances the release of interleukin 1 and inhibits the release of apolipoprotein E from the macrophages. When cultured macrophages were exposed to ferrous ions (50 microM FeSO4) for 4 h at 37 degrees C, cellular lipid peroxidation (measured by analyses of malondialdehyde (MDA), conjugated dienes (CD), and lipid peroxides (PD)) increased 2-4-fold in comparison with non-treated cells. This process was iron-dose dependent, reached its maximum after 4 h of incubation, and was accompanied by 68% and 53% reductions in the content of the cellular linoleic (18:2), and arachidonic acid (20:4), respectively, and by 29% and 36% reductions of cellular vitamin E and vitamin A, respectively. Cell viability (measured by trypan blue exclusion, by [3H]thymidine incorporation into DNA, by analysis of the release of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) or [3H]adenine), and cell morphology (studied by scanning electron microscopy) were not significantly affected by the iron-induced oxidative stress. Manitol and dimethylthiourea (DMTU), but not catalase or superoxide dismutase (SOD), significantly inhibited iron-induced cellular lipid peroxide formation, suggesting that hydroxyl radical, but not superoxides or hydrogen peroxides, mediated the iron-induced cellular lipid peroxidation. Incubation of LDL (0.2 mg of protein/ml) with oxidized macrophages resulted in LDL lipids peroxidation, as evidenced by an 8-fold increase in the LDL associated MDA in comparison with LDL that was incubated under similar conditions with non-oxidized macrophages. Furthermore, oxidation of LDL by oxidized macrophages in the presence of copper ions (10 microM CuSO4) was 2-fold higher in comparison with oxidation of LDL by non-oxidized macrophages. The release of apolipoprotein E from oxidized macrophages decreased by 50%, whereas macrophage release of beta-glucuronidase and of interleukin-1 beta increased by 83% and by a factor of 6, respectively. This study demonstrates for the first time that iron ions induce oxidation of the cellular polyunsaturated fatty acids in intact macrophages and that this cellular lipid peroxidation can subsequently induce LDL oxidation.