Class I P-glycoproteins (Pgp) confer multidrug resistance in tumors, but the physiologic function of Pgp in normal tissues remains uncertain. In cells derived from tissues that normally express Pgp, recent data suggest a possible role for Pgp in cholesterol trafficking from the plasma membrane to the endoplasmic reticulum. We investigated the esterification of plasma membrane cholesterol under basal conditions and in response to sphingomyelinase treatment in transfected and drug-selected cell lines expressing differing amounts of functional class I Pgp. Compared with parental NIH 3T3 fibroblasts, cells transfected with human multidrug resistance (MDR1) Pgp esterified more cholesterol both without and with sphingomyelinase. Esterification also was greater in drug-selected Dox 6 myeloma cells than parental 8226 cells, which express low and non- immunodetectable amounts of Pgp, respectively. However, no differences in total plasma membrane cholesterol were detected. Transfection of fibroblasts with the multidrug resistance-associated protein (MRP) did not alter esterification, showing that cholesterol trafficking was not generally affected by ATP-binding cassette transporters. Steroidal (progesterone, dehydroepiandrosterone) and non-steroidal antagonists (verapamil, PSC 833, LY335979, and GF120918) were evaluated for effects on both cholesterol trafficking and the net content of 99mTc-Sestamibi, a reporter of drug transport activity mediated by Pgp. In Pgp-expressing cells treated with nonselective and selective inhibitors, both the kinetics and efficacy of inhibition of cholesterol esterification differed from the antagonism of drug transport mediated by Pgp. Thus, although the data show that greater expression of class I Pgp within a given cell type is associated with enhanced esterification of plasma membrane cholesterol in support of a physiologic function for Pgp in facilitating cholesterol trafficking, the molecular mechanism is dissociated from the conventional drug transport activity of Pgp.