The modulatory effect of cholesterol on the function of two structurally related peptide receptors, the oxytocin receptor and the brain cholecystokinin receptor in plasma membranes as well as in intact cells, was analyzed. Different approaches for cholesterol modification were applied: (i) depletion and reloading of cholesterol mediated by methyl-beta-cyclodextrin and cholesterol-methyl-beta-cyclodextrin, respectively, in a reversible manner; (ii) mild treatment of the plasma membranes with cholesterol oxidase under control of the membrane fluidity as measured by fluorescence anisotropy of diphenylhexatriene; and (iii) filipin pretreatment of membranes. The results allowed us to distinguish two mechanisms of cholesterol affecting the ligand-binding function of receptors: changes of the membrane fluidity as demonstrated for the cholecystokinin receptor, or a putatively specific cholesterol-receptor interaction as shown for the oxytocin receptor. This was confirmed in a structure-activity analysis with a variety of sterol analogues substituting for cholesterol in the membranes. While the agonist binding of the cholecystokinin receptor was supported by each of the tested steroids and was well correlated with the corresponding fluorescence anisotropy values, a stringent and unique requirement of the oxytocin receptor's affinity state for structural features of the sterol molecule was found. The molecular requirements differ both from those postulated for sterol-phospholipid interactions and from those known to be necessary for the functional activity of other proteins. The different behavior of both peptide receptors concerning the cholesterol dependence of their ligand binding was also present in vivo at the level of signal transduction. The results suggest that cholesterol can modulate receptor function by two distinct mechanisms, by changes of the membrane fluidity, and/or by a highly specific molecular interaction.