Cholesterol stored in human adipose tissue is derived from circulating lipoproteins. To delineate the cholesterol transport function of LDL and HDL, the movement of radiolabelled esterified cholesterol and free cholesterol from labelled LDL and HDL to human adipocytes was examined in the present study. LDL and HDL were enriched and labelled in esterified cholesterol with [14C]cholesterol by the action of plasma lipid transfer proteins and lecithin-cholesterol acyltransferase. Doubly labelled (3H,14C) LDL and HDL were prepared by exchanging free [3H]cholesterol into the 14C-labelled lipoproteins. 14C-labelled lipoprotein and 3H-labelled lipoprotein were also prepared separately and mixed to yield a mixed doubly labelled lipoprotein. Relative to the total amount added, proportionally more free than esterified cholesterol was transferred to the adipocytes upon incubation with any doubly labelled LDL and HDL. The calculated mass of free and esterified cholesterol transferred, however, varied with different labelled lipoproteins. 3H- and 14C-labelled LDL or HDL transferred 2-3-fold more esterified than free cholesterol while the reverse occurred with the mixed doubly labelled LDL or HDL. Thus, free cholesterol-depleted particles preferentially transferred cholesterol ester to the fat cells. In the presence of the homologous unlabelled native lipoprotein, the transfers of free and esterified cholesterol from labelled LDL or HDL were specifically inhibited. Selective transfer of esterified cholesterol relative to apoprotein was also observed when esterified cholesterol uptake from both LDL and HDL was assayed along with the binding of 125I-labelled lipoprotein. The cellular accumulation of cholesterol ether-labelled HDL (a non-hydrolyzable analogue of cholesterol ester) exceeded that of cholesterol ester consistent with significant hydrolysis of the latter physiological substrate. These results demonstrate preferential transfer of free cholesterol and esterified cholesterol over apoprotein for both LDL and HDL in human adipocytes. Furthermore, the data suggest that the cholesterol ester transport function of LDL and HDL can be enhanced by free cholesterol depletion and cholesterol ester enrichment of the particles, and affirms a role for adipose tissue in the metabolism of lipid-modified lipoproteins.