In an attempt to develop an assay for the susceptibility of plasma lipids to oxidation, we have studied the kinetics of copper-induced oxidation in diluted serum and plasma prepared with different anticoagulants (heparin, citrate and EDTA) by monitoring the absorbance of oxidation-products at several wavelengths. These studies revealed the complex and interrelated effects of the water-soluble antioxidant ascorbic acid, citrate and chloride ions on the kinetics of copper-induced oxidation of plasma lipids. Specifically, the onset of oxidation induced by copper-citrate chelates is only slightly affected by chloride ions and is accelerated upon increasing the copper concentration. By contrast, in the absence of citrate, the lag preceding oxidation in diluted serum or plasma (but not the maximal rate of oxidation) depends markedly on the chloride concentration in the diluting medium. In the absence of Cl-, the lag preceding oxidation is a decreasing saturable function of copper concentration, whereas in a normal phosphate-buffered saline solution (PBS), the lag shows a biphasic dependence on copper concentration such that at copper concentrations above 10-30 μM (depending on the extent of plasma dilution), increasing the concentration of copper results in prolongation of the lag. This dependence of copper-induced oxidation on the concentration of copper is not observed for dialyzed serum unless ascorbic acid is added. Our interpretation of these results is that water-soluble reductants and chloride ions act synergistically to stabilize Cu+, on the expense of Cu2+. Quenching of free radicals by Cu+ may be responsible for the prolongation of the lag at high copper concentrations, with no reduction of the maximal rate of oxidation. In spite of the complex dependencies described above, spectrophotometric monitoring of the kinetics of oxidation of plasma lipids, under 'optimized conditions' (50-fold diluted serum, in PBS containing 720 μM sodium citrate and 100 μM copper), agrees with independent measurements of the consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Hence, the spectroscopic method may become useful for evaluation of the susceptibility of plasma lipids to oxidation. This possibility, however, has yet to be elucidated through investigations of the correlation between the susceptibility of serum lipids to copper-induced oxidation in vitro and clinical factors of significance.