Free radical chain oxidation of highly oxidizable 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC), initiated by 2,2'-azobis(4-methoxy-2,4-dimethylvaleronitrile), was carried out at 37 degrees C in benzene for 24 h. Fifteen oxysterols derived from 7-DHC were isolated and characterized with 1D and 2D NMR spectroscopy and mass spectrometry. A mechanism that involves abstraction of hydrogen atoms at C-9 and/or C-14 is proposed to account for the formation of all of the oxysterols and the reaction progress profile. In either the H-9 or H-14 mechanism, a pentadienyl radical intermediate is formed after abstraction of H-9 or H-14 by a peroxyl radical. This step is followed by the well-precedented transformations observed in peroxidation reactions of polyunsaturated fatty acids such as oxygen addition, peroxyl radical 5-exo cyclization, and S(H)i carbon radical attack on the peroxide bond. The mechanism for peroxidation of 7-DHC also accounts for the formation of numerous oxysterol natural products isolated from fungal species, marine sponges, and cactaceous species. In a cell viability test, the oxysterol mixture from 7-DHC peroxidation was found to be cytotoxic to Neuro2a neuroblastoma cells in the micromolar concentration range. We propose that the high reactivity of 7-DHC and the oxysterols generated from its peroxidation may play important roles in the pathogenesis of Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome, X-linked dominant chondrodysplasia punctata, and cerebrotendinous xanthomatosis, all of these being metabolic disorders characterized by an elevated level of 7-DHC.