Monoterpenes such as limonene and perillyl alcohol (PA) are currently under investigation for their chemotherapeutic properties which have been tied to their ability to affect protein isoprenylation. Because PA affects the synthesis of isoprenoids, such as ubiquinone, and cholesterol is the end product of the synthetic pathway from which this isoprenoid pathway branches, we investigated the effects of this compound upon cholesterol metabolism in the colonic adenocarcinoma cell line SW480. PA (1 mM) inhibited incorporation of 14C-mevalonate into 21-26 kDa proteins by 25% in SW480 cells. Cholesterol (CH) biosynthesis was assessed by measuring the incorporation of 14C-acetate and 14C-mevalonate into 27-carbon-sterols. Cells treated with PA (1 mM) exhibited a fourfold increase in the incorporation of 14C-acetate but not 14C-mevalonate into cholesterol. Mevinolin (lovastatin), an inhibitor of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-CoA(HMG-CoA) reductase, at 2 microM concentration, inhibited CH synthesis from 14C-acetate by 80%. Surprisingly, concurrent addition of mevinolin and PA did not significantly alter the stimulatory effects of PA. As observed differences in 14C-acetate and 14C-mevalonate precursor labeling could indicate PA affects early pathway events, the effects of this monoterpene on HMG-CoA reductase activity were evaluated. Unexpectedly, 1 mM PA did not stimulate activity of this enzyme. Consistent with its action as a reversibly bound inhibitor, in washed microsomes, 2 microM mevinolin pretreatment increased reductase protein expression causing a 12.7 (+/- 2.4)-fold compensatory HMG-CoA reductase activity increase; concurrent treatment with 1 mM PA attenuated this to a 5.3 (+/- 0.03)-fold increase. Gas chromatographic analysis confirmed CH was the major lipid present in the measured thin-layer chromatography spot. Since 14C-acetate incorporation into free fatty acid and phospholipid pools was not significantly affected by PA treatment, nonspecific changes in whole acetate pool sizes were not indicated. Because increases in endogenous CH synthesis should result in compensatory changes in exogenous sterol utilization, the effects of PA upon low density lipoprotein (LDL) receptor activity were evaluated. Consistent with the observed increases in CH synthesis, 1 mM PA decreased 125I-LDL internalization to 50% of the fetal bovine serum control; concurrent addition of 2 microM mevinolin attenuated this effect to a reduction of 80% of the control value. Data suggest that in certain colonic tumor cells PA strongly affects cholesterol metabolism via a mechanism of action that is insensitive to the HMG-CoA reductase inhibitor mevinolin.