Apolipoprotein AI (apo AI) is the major protein of high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Using radioimmunoassay, we measured plasma apo AI levels in 1,880 individuals in 283 pedigrees randomly selected from the population with respect to disease status and risk factors for coronary artery disease. Apo AI levels were first adjusted for date of assay (6.8% of apo AI variation) and then adjusted for variability in age and body mass index (an additional 6.6%, 20.4%, and 23.0% of apo AI variations for males, females not using exogenous hormones, and females using exogenous hormones, respectively). A mixture of two normal distributions fit the adjusted data better than did a single normal distribution. Genetic and environmental models that could explain the mixture of normal distributions were investigated using complex segregation analysis. Heterogeneous etiologies for individual differences in adjusted apo AI levels were suggested by the data in the 283 pedigrees. In a subset of 126 pedigrees, there is evidence for the major effect of a nontransmitted environmental factor that explains the mixture of distributions as well as polygenic loci that influence apo AI levels within each distribution. The environmental factor and polygenic loci account for 32% and 65% of the adjusted variation, respectively. In the other 157 pedigrees there is strong support for a single locus with a major effect that accounts for 27% of the adjusted variation. The effect of the polygenic loci is not different from zero in these 157 pedigrees. This is the first study to present evidence for the segregation of a single unmeasured locus with a major effect on levels of apo AI in a population-based sample of pedigrees.