Macrophages in advanced atherosclerotic lesions accumulate large amounts of unesterified, or "free," cholesterol (FC). FC accumulation induces macrophage apoptosis, which likely contributes to plaque destabilization. Apoptosis is triggered by the enrichment of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) with FC, resulting in depletion of ER calcium stores, and induction of the unfolded protein response. To explain the mechanism of ER calcium depletion, we hypothesized that FC enrichment of the normally cholesterol-poor ER membrane inhibits the macrophage ER calcium pump, sarcoplasmic-endoplasmic reticulum calcium ATPase-2b (SERCA2b). FC enrichment of ER membranes to a level similar to that occuring in vivo inhibited both the ATPase activity and calcium sequestration function of SERCA2b. Enrichment of ER with ent-cholesterol or 14:0-18:0 phosphatidylcholine, which possess the membrane-ordering properties of cholesterol, also inhibited SERCA2b. Moreover, at various levels of FC enrichment of ER membranes, there was a very close correlation between increasing membrane lipid order, as monitored by 16-doxyl-phosphatidyclioline electron spin resonance, and SERCA2b inhibition. In view of these data, we speculate that SERCA2b, a conformationally active protein with 11 membrane-spanning regions, loses function due to decreased conformational freedom in FC-ordered membranes. This biophysical model may underlie the critical connection between excess cholesterol, unfolded protein response induction, macrophage death, and plaque destabilization in advanced atherosclerosis.