The concentrations and lipoprotein distributions of apolipoprotein E (apoE) in normal human umbilical cord blood plasma were determined. The mean plasma apoE level of 95 neonates was considerably higher than that of 49 normal adults (58.1 vs 35.8 micrograms/ml). This elevation of apoE levels was in striking contrast to the lower than adult levels of cholesterol (72 mg/dl vs 185 mg/dl), triglyceride (37.8 mg/dl vs 97.6 mg/dl), and LDL cholesterol (25 mg/dl vs 110 mg/dl) in neonatal plasma. For the group of 95 neonates, the plasma apoE concentration correlated significantly with total plasma cholesterol concentration (r = 0.60), with LDL cholesterol concentration (r = 0.27) and with HDL cholesterol concentration (r = 0.50). Among the neonates, 87% of plasma apoE was associated with a less dense subfraction of high density lipoprotein compared to a mean of 58% for 30 normal adults. Thus, for neonates, despite hypolipidemia, the absolute concentration of apoE in HDL (50 micrograms/ml) was 2.5 times that of adults (20 micrograms/ml). We speculate that the very low level of neonatal VLDL, providing limited substrate for lipolysis, may result in retarded removal of apoE from plasma and the observed high level of apoE in neonatal HDL. We hypothesize that in the fetus and neonate, as has been demonstrated in abetalipoproteinemia, apoE-rich HDL may functionally substitute for LDL in delivering cholesterol to cells.