In earlier work we showed that cholesterol monohydrate crystallization from model and native biles can involve filamentous cholesterol crystals, and other metastable intermediates which are covered by a layer of phosphatidylcholine (lecithin) molecules [Konikoff et al., J. Clin. Invest. 90 (1992) 1155]. The aim of the present study was to isolate the initial filamentous cholesterol crystals by density gradient centrifugation and microfiltration and to sequentially monitor their transformations into equilibrium plates within the mother liquor composed of a dilute (1.2 g/dl) bile salt-rich model bile (cholesterol/egg yolk lecithin/sodium taurocholate, 1.7/0.8/97.5 mol%). When assayed by dual radiolabeling at 37°C, total precipitated cholesterol in bile increased from zero at 2-4 h of incubation to 43% at 24 h, reaching a stable value by 48 h when 36% of total cholesterol had crystallized. Isopycnic sucrose density gradient centrifugation at 20°C separated early filamentous crystals from plate-like crystals and revealed densities compatible with anhydrous cholesterol (1.029 g/ml) and cholesterol monohydrate (1.048 g/ml), respectively. Rapid (1 h) density gradient centrifugation carried-out in time-lapse sequence disclosed that cholesterol crystallization involved initially low-density (1.01-1.03 g/ml) filamentous crystals, which reached a maximal concentration at 24 h and disappeared gradually by 156 h of incubation. Concomitantly, the concentrations of high-density (1.04-1.06 g/ml) plate-like cholesterol crystals increased reciprocally throughout the crystallization process suggesting a precursor-product relationship. Rates of crystal filament formation and transitions to thermodynamically stable plates accelerated curvilinearly with increases in temperature from 4 to 60°C, but the crystallization process per se remained unchanged. We conclude that metastable intermediate crystals during cholesterol precipitation from bile may involve either low-density anhydrous crystals or a new cholesterol polymorph that transforms slowly at physiologic temperature (37°C) into classic plate-like cholesterol monohydrate crystals. Clearly, cholesterol crystallization in model bile is more complex and heterogenous than hitherto believed and monitoring metastable intermediate forms, habits and possibly polymorphs should provide a better framework for studying the physical chemistry of nucleation and crystal growth in native bile as well as promoters and inhibitors of these processes.