Apolipoprotein (apo) E is a multifunctional protein that can act as a ligand for lipoprotein receptors. The receptor-mediated clearance of the triglyceride-rich lipoproteins (TRL) chylomicrons and VLDL from plasma is, in part, dependent on apo E. Enrichment of VLDL with apo E is thought to enhance receptor-mediated clearance of VLDL resulting in a low rate of conversion of VLDL to LDL. However, the kinetic mechanism controlling the concentration of apo E in VLDL is not known. We conducted kinetic studies on apo E in the TRL fraction (d < 1.006 g/ml) and apo B-100 in the TRL and LDL (d = 1.019-1.063 g/ml) fractions to assess the kinetic determinants of apo E concentration in TRL and to determine the effects that TRL apo E production and clearance rates have on the production rate of LDL apo B-100. Nineteen males between the ages of 24 and 73 underwent a primed-constant infusion with deuterated leucine tracer in the constantly-fed state. Apo B-100 from TRL and LDL, and apo E from TRL were isolated and their tracer incorporation measured by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. The residence time and production rates of each protein were determined from the kinetic data using the SAAM II modeling program. The residence time and production rate of TRL apo E were about one-half that of TRL apo B-100 (1.8 +/- 1.0 vs. 2.9 +/- 2.1 h and 14.5 +/- 11.0 vs. 27.6 +/- 17.3 mg/kg per day, respectively). The production rate of TRL apo E was weakly correlated with the production rate of TRL apo B-100 (r = 0.424, P = 0.07). Multiple regression analysis showed that the residence time of TRL apo B-100 and the relative TRL apo E production rate (relative to the TRL apo B100 production rate) were negatively associated with LDL apo B-100 production rate, accounting for 68% of its variability. We conclude that (1) the concentration of apo E in TRL is highly correlated to its production rate, suggesting that production rate regulates the TRL apo E concentration, and (2) individuals with a relatively short TRL apo B-100 residence time and those producing TRL with a relatively low apo E content have the highest LDL apo B-100 production rates.