To evaluate the factors that regulate HDL catabolism in vivo, we have measured the clearance of human apoA-I from rabbit plasma by following the isotopic decay of (125)I-apoA-I and the clearance of unlabeled apoA-I using a radioimmunometric assay (RIA). We show that the clearance of unlabeled apoA-I is 3-fold slower than that of (125)I-apoA-I. The mass clearance of iodinated apoA-I, as determined by RIA, is superimposable with the isotopic clearance of (125)I-apoA-I. The data demonstrate that iodination of tyrosine residues alters the apoA-I molecule in a manner that promotes an accelerated catabolism. The clearance from rabbit plasma of unmodified apoA-I on HDL(3) and a reconstituted HDL particle (LpA-I) were very similar and about 3-4-fold slower than that for (125)I-apoA-I on the lipoproteins. Therefore, HDL turnover in the rabbit is much slower than that estimated from tracer kinetic studies. To determine the role of the kidney in HDL metabolism, the kinetics of unmodified apoA-I and LpA-I were reevaluated in animals after a unilateral nephrectomy. Removal of one kidney was associated with a 40-50% reduction in creatinine clearance rates and a 34% decrease in the clearance rate of unlabeled apoA-I and LpA-I particles. In contrast, the clearance of (125)I-labeled molecules was much less affected by the removal of a kidney; FCR for (125)I-LpA-I was reduced by <10%. The data show that the kidneys are responsible for most (70%) of the catabolism of apoA-I and HDL in vivo, while (125)I-labeled apoA-I and HDL are rapidly catabolized by different tissues. Thus, the kidney is the major site for HDL catabolism in vivo. Modification of tyrosine residues on apoA-I may increase its plasma clearance rate by enhancing extra-renal degradation pathways.