Lipoprotein(a) consists of a low-density lipoprotein containing apolipoprotein (apo) B-100 and of the genetically polymorphic apo(a). It is not known where and how lipoprotein(a) is assembled and whether there exists a precursor for lipoprotein(a). We have determined the phenotype, concentration, and distribution of apo(a) in plasma from patients with lipoprotein lipase (LPL) deficiency (type I hyperlipoproteinemia, n = 14), in apo E 2/2 homozygotes with type III hyperlipoproteinemia (n = 12) and in controls (n = 16). In the two genetic conditions, there is grossly impaired catabolic conversion of apo B-100-containing precursor lipoproteins to low-density lipoproteins. Considering apo(a) type, the plasma concentration of apo(a) was normal in type III patients but significantly reduced in LPL deficiency. Despite the defects in the catabolism of other apo B-containing lipoproteins, the distribution of apo(a) was only moderately affected in both metabolic disorders, with 66.7% (type I) and 74.7% (type III) being present as the characteristic lipoprotein(a) in the density range of 1.05-1.125 g/ml (controls 81.6%). The remainder was distributed between the triglyceride-rich lipoproteins (type I 12.4%, type III 8.5%, controls 4.7%) and the lipid-poor bottom fraction (type I 19.3%, type III 15.3%, controls 12.6%). In all conditions most apo(a) (57-88%) dissociated from the triglyceride-rich lipoproteins upon recentrifugation and was recovered as lipoprotein(a). These data suggest that lipoprotein(a) is not generated from a triglyceride-rich precursor. Lipoprotein(a) may be secreted directly into plasma or may be formed by preferential binding of secreted apo(a) to existing low-density lipoprotein.