Cytochrome c(3+)-catalyzed peroxidation of phosphatidylcholine liposomes by hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) was indicated by the production of thiobarbituric acid reactive substances, oxygen consumption, and emission of spontaneous chemiluminescence. The iron chelator diethylenetriaminepentaacetic acid (DTPA) only partially inhibited peroxidation when H2O2 concentrations were 200 microM or greater. In contrast, iron compounds such as ferric chloride, potassium ferricyanide, and hemin induced H2O2-dependent lipid peroxidation which was totally inhibitable by DTPA. Cyanide and urate, which react at or near the cytochrome-heme, completely prevented lipid peroxidation, while hydroxyl radical scavengers and superoxide dismutase had very little or no inhibitory effect. Changes in liposome surface charge did not influence cytochrome c3+ plus H2O2-dependent peroxidation, but a net negative charge was critical in favoring cytochrome c(3+)-dependent, H2O2-independent lipid auto-oxidative processes. These results show that reaction of cytochrome c with H2O2 promotes membrane oxidation by more than one chemical mechanism, including formation of high oxidation states of iron at the cytochrome-heme and also by heme iron release at higher H2O2 concentrations. Cytochrome c3+ could react with mitochondrial H2O2 to yield "site-specific" mitochondrial membrane lipid peroxidation during tissue oxidant stress.