BACKGROUND: The intracellular bacterium Chlamydia pneumoniae is suspected to play a role in formation and progression of atherosclerosis. Many studies investigated cell death initiation versus inhibition by Chlamydia pneumoniae in established cell lines but nothing is known in primary human aortic smooth muscle cells, a cell type among others known to be involved in the formation of the atherosclerotic plaque. Type of cell death was analyzed by various methods in primary aortic smooth muscle cells after infection with Chlamydia pneumoniae to investigate a possible pathogenic link in atherosclerosis. RESULTS: Chlamydiae were found to be localized up to 72 h post infection in aortic smooth muscle cells either as single bacteria or inside of large inclusions. Quantification of host cell death by lactate dehydrogenase release assay revealed strictly dose and time dependent lysis for all tested isolates of Chlamydia pneumoniae. Phosphatidylserine exposure was detected by flow cytometry in Chlamydia pneumoniae infected cells. Ultrastructure of Chlamydia pneumoniae infected human aortic smooth muscle cells showed extensive membrane- and organelle damage, chromatin condensation but no nuclear fragmentation. DNA fragmentation as well as cell membrane permeability was analyzed by TUNEL and NHS-biotin staining and occurred exclusively in cells carrying Chlamydia pneumoniae spots but not in smooth muscle cells with inclusions. These morphological features of cell death were not accompanied by an activation of caspase-3 as revealed by analysis of enzyme activity but involved mitochondrial membrane depolarization as shown by TMRE uptake and release of cytochrome c from mitochondria. CONCLUSION: This study provides evidence that Chlamydia pneumoniae induce a spot like infection in human aortic smooth muscle cells, which results in a chimeric cell death with both apoptotic and necrotic characteristics. This aponecrotic cell death may assist chronic inflammation in atherosclerotic blood vessels.