Rate constants for autoxidation propagation of several unsaturated lipids in benzene solution at 37 degrees C and in phosphatidylcholine liposomes were determined by a linoleate radical clock. This radical clock is based on competition between hydrogen atom abstraction by an intermediate peroxyl radical derived from linoleic acid that leads to a trans,cis-conjugated hydroxyoctadecadienoic product and beta-fragmentation of the same peroxyl that gives the trans,trans-product hydroxyoctadecadienoic acid. Rate constants determined by this approach in solution relative to linoleic acid (k(p) = 62 M(-1) s(-1)) were: arachidonic acid (k(p) = 197 +/- 13 M(-1) s(-1)), eicosapentaenoic acid (k(p) = 249 +/- 16 M(-1) s(-1)), docosahexaenoic acid (k(p) = 334 +/- 37 M(-1) s(-1)), cholesterol (k(p)= 11 +/- 2 M(-1) s(-1)), and 7-dehydrocholesterol (k(p)= 2260 +/- 40 M(-1) s(-1)). Free radical oxidations of multilamellar and unilamellar liposomes of various mixtures of glycerophosphatidylcholine molecular species were also carried out. In some experiments, cholesterol or 7-dehydrocholesterol was incorporated into the lipid mixture undergoing oxidation. A phosphatidylcholine bearing a linoleate ester at sn-2 was a component of each liposome peroxidation reaction and the ratio of trans,cis/trans,trans (t,c/t,t)-conjugated diene oxidation products formed from this phospholipid was determined for each oxidation reaction. This t,c/t,t-product ratio from linoleate was used to "clock" liposome constituents as hydrogen atom donors in the lipid bilayer. Application of this lipid bilayer radical clock gives relative autoxidation propagation rate constants of arachidonate (20:4), eicosapentaenoate (20:5), docosahexaenoate (22:6), and 7-dehydrocholesterol to be 115 +/- 7, 145 +/- 8, 172 +/- 13, and 832 +/- 86, respectively, a reactivity trend that parallels the one in solution. We also conclude from the liposome oxidations that linoleate peroxyl radicals at different positions on the eighteen-carbon chain (at C-9 and C-13) have different kinetic properties. This is in contrast to the results of solution oxidations of linoleate in which the C-9 and C-13 peroxyl radicals have similar reactivities. We suggest that peroxyl radical beta-scission depends on solvent polarity and the polarity of the local environment of peroxyl radicals in liposomal oxidations depends on the position of the peroxyl radical on the 18-carbon chain.