Monolayer cultures of rat hepatocytes have been examined for their ability to secrete ethanolamine plasmalogen as a component of nascent lipoproteins. In culture medium from these cells, ethanolamine plasmalogen comprises approx. 20-30% of total ethanolamine glycerophospholipids when measured either as phospholipid mass or by the incorporation of [1-3H]ethanolamine. An approximately equal distribution of the plasmalogen was found throughout all lipoprotein density fractions. The content of plasmalogen in whole rat serum, was 36% of total ethanolamine glycerophospholipids. In contrast, in rat liver and cultured hepatocytes the amount of ethanolamine plasmalogen was 5-fold lower than in serum or culture medium (approx. 5% of total ethanolamine phospholipids). Normal human plasma also contains ethanolamine plasmalogen in relatively large amounts (approx. 50% of total ethanolamine phospholipids). Thus, a major function of plasmalogen biosynthetic enzymes in liver may be the provision of ethanolamine plasmalogen for secretion into lipoproteins. Previous studies (e.g., Zoeller, R.A. et al. (1988) J. Biol. Chem. 263, 11590-11596) have suggested that ethanolamine plasmalogen may function as an antioxidant for the protection of lipid and protein membrane components against oxidation. Oxidized, but not native, low-density lipoprotein is rapidly taken up by macrophages with the formation of foam cells characteristic of atherosclerotic lesions (Steinbrecher, U.P. et al. (1984) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 81, 3883-3887). Thus, the presence of plasmalogen as part of newly secreted lipoprotein particles may prevent their oxidation and subsequent uptake by macrophages.