The steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR) mediates the acute stimulation of steroid synthesis by tropic hormones in steroidogenic cells. StAR interacts with the outer mitochondrial membrane and facilitates the rate-limiting transfer of cholesterol to the inner mitochondrial membrane where cytochrome P-450scc converts this cholesterol into pregnenolone. We tested the ability of N-62 StAR to transfer cholesterol from donor vesicles containing cholesterol but no cytochrome P-450scc to acceptor vesicles containing P-450scc but no cholesterol, using P-450scc activity as a reporter of the cholesterol content of synthetic phospholipid vesicles. N-62 StAR stimulated P-450scc activity in acceptor vesicles 5-10-fold following the addition of donor vesicles. Transfer of cholesterol to acceptor vesicles was rapid and sufficient to maintain a linear rate of pregnenolone synthesis for 10 min. The effect of N-62 StAR in stimulating P-450scc activity was specific for cholesterol transfer and was not due to vesicle fusion or P-450scc exchange between vesicles. Maximum stimulation of P-450scc activity in acceptor vesicles required preincubation of N-62 StAR with phospholipid vesicles prior to adding donor vesicles. The amount of N-62 StAR causing half-maximum stimulation of P-450scc activity in acceptor vesicles was 1.9 muM. Half-maximum stimulation required more than a 10-fold higher concentration of R182L N-62 StAR, a mutant associated with congenital lipoid adrenal hyperplasia. N-62 StAR-mediated transfer of cholesterol between vesicles showed low dependence on the cholesterol concentration in the donor vesicles. Thus StAR can transfer cholesterol between synthetic membranes without other protein components found in mitochondria.