The molecular organization of cholesterol in phospholipid bilayers composed of 1,2-diarachidonylphosphatidylcholine (20:4-20:4PC), 1-stearoyl-2-arachidonylphosphatidylcholine (18:0-20:4PC), and 20:4-20:4PC/18:0-20:4PC (1/1 mol) was investigated by solid-state (2)H NMR and by low- and wide-angle x-ray diffraction (XRD). On the basis of distinct quadrupolar powder patterns arising from [3 alpha-(2)H(1)]cholesterol intercalated into the membrane and phase separated as solid, solubility chi(NMR)(chol) = 17 +/- 2 mol% and tilt angle alpha(0) = 25 +/- 1 degrees in 20:4-20:4PC were determined. The corresponding values in 18:0-20:4PC were chi (NMR)(chol) > or = 50 mol% and alpha(0) = 16 +/- 1 degrees. Cholesterol solubility determined by XRD was chi(NMR)(chol) = 15 +/- 2 mol% and chi(NMR)(chol) = 49 +/- 1 mol% for 20:4-20:4PC and 18:0-20:4PC, respectively. XRD experiments show that the solid sterol is monohydrate crystals presumably residing outside the bilayer. The (2)H NMR spectrum for equimolar [3 alpha-(2)H(1)]cholesterol added to mixed 20:4-20:4PC/18:0-20:4PC (1/1 mol) membranes is consistent with segregation of cholesterol into 20:4-20:4PC and 18:0-20:4PC microdomains of <160 A in size that preserve the molecular organization of sterol in the individual phospholipid constituents. Our results demonstrate unambiguously that cholesterol has low affinity to polyunsaturated fatty acids and support hypotheses of lateral phase separation of membrane constituents into sterol-poor/polyunsaturated fatty acid-rich and sterol-rich/saturated fatty acid-rich microdomains.