Lipoprotein(a) [Lp(a)] is a quantitative trait in human plasma. Lp(a) consists of a low-density lipoprotein and the plasminogen-related apolipoprotein(a) [apo(a)]. The apo(a) gene determines a size polymorphism of the protein, which is related to Lp(a) levels in plasma. In an attempt to gain a deeper insight into the genetic architecture of this risk factor for coronary heart disease, we have investigated the basis of the apo(a) size polymorphism by pulsed field gel electrophoresis of genomic DNA employing various restriction enzymes (SwaI, KpnI, KspI, SfiI, NotI) and an apo(a) kringle-IV-specific probe. All enzymes detected the same size polymorphism in the kringle IV repeat domain of apo(a). With KpnI, 26 different alleles were identified among 156 unrelated subjects; these alleles ranged in size from 32 kb to 189 kb and differed by increments of 5.6 kb, corresponding to one kringle IV unit. There was a perfect match between the size of the apo(a) DNA phenotypes and the size of apo(a) isoforms in plasma. The apo(a) DNA polymorphism was further used to estimate the magnitude of the apo(a) gene effect on Lp(a) levels by a sib-pair comparison approach based on 253 sib-pairs from 64 families. Intra-class correlation of log-transformed Lp(a) levels was high in sib-pairs sharing both parental alleles (r = 0.91), significant in those with one common allele (r = 0.31), and absent in those with no parental allele in common (r = 0.12). The data show that the intra-individual variability in Lp(a) levels is almost entirely explained by variation at the apo(a) locus but that only a fraction (46%) is explained by the DNA size polymorphism. This suggests further heterogeneity relating to Lp(a) levels in the apo(a) gene.