Oxidative modification of low density lipoprotein has been suggested as patho-physiologically relevant process in atherogenesis and the lipid peroxidizing enzyme 15-lipoxygenase may be involved. For experimental evidence on the in vivo action of this enzyme in the time course of plaque formation we analyzed the lipid extracts of lesional areas representing various stages of human atherogenesis for the occurrence of specific 15-lipoxygenase products. In advanced human lesions the degree of oxygenation of the lesion lipids measured as hydroxy linoleic acid/linoleic acid ratio varied between 0.2 and 3.2%. Here an unspecific pattern of oxygenated lipids that did not differ from the pattern formed during copper-catalyzed LDL oxidation was detected. In both cases an enantiomer ratio (S/R-ratio) of 13-hydroxy-9Z,11E-octadecadienoic acid (13-HODE) of approximately 1:1 was found. In young human lesions which were obtained from the collection of the pathological determinants of atherosclerosis in youth (PDAY) program the hydroxy linoleic acid/linoleic acid ratio was much smaller (variation between 0.05 and 0.6%), and a significant share of specific 15-lipoxygenase products was detected (S/R-ratio of 13-hydroxy linoleic acid of 54 +/- 3.1/46 +/- 3.1 [mean +/- SD]). These data suggest that the 15-lipoxygenase is enzymatically active on endogenous substrates in young human lesions and thus, may be of patho-physiological importance for early atherogenesis. In advanced human plaques the 15-lipoxygenase may be functionally silent and specific lipoxygenase products formed in earlier stages may be decomposed or superimposed by large amounts of nonenzymatic lipid peroxidation products.