The initial assembly of apolipoprotein B100 (apoB) into lipoprotein particles occurs cotranslationally. To examine steps required to initiate this process, the intracellular folding and assembly of the amino-terminal 28% of apoB (apoB28) was examined using several criteria including nonreducing gel electrophoresis, sensitivity to dithiothreitol (DTT)-mediated reduction, and buoyant density gradient centrifugation. In hepatoma cells, after a 1-min pulse with radiolabeled amino acids, labeled apoB28 migrated during gel electrophoresis in the folded position and was resistant to reduction in vivo with 2 mM DTT. A similar rate and extent of folding was observed in Chinese hamster ovary cells, a microsomal triglyceride transfer protein (MTP)-negative cell line that can neither lipidate nor efficiently secrete apoB28. Amino-terminal folding of apoB28 was essential for its subsequent intracellular lipidation as apoB28 synthesized in hepatoma cells under reducing conditions remained lipid poor (d > 1.25 g/ml) and was retained intracellularly. Upon DTT removal, reduced apoB28 underwent a process of rapid (t1/2 approximately 2 min) post-translational folding followed by a slower process of MTP-dependent lipidation. As with the cotranslational assembly pathway, post-translational lipidation of apoB28 displayed a strict dependence upon amino-terminal folding. We conclude that: 1) folding of the amino-terminal disulfide bonded domain of apoB is achieved prior to the completion of translation and is independent of MTP and events associated with buoyant lipoprotein formation and 2) domain-specific folding of apoBs amino-terminal region is required to initiate MTP-dependent lipid transfer to nascent apoB in the hepatic endoplasmic reticulum.