Plasma angiotensin I-converting enzyme (ACE) activity has been measured in a sample of 87 healthy families participating in a study of cardiovascular risk factors. The mean +/- SD levels of plasma ACE were 34.1 +/- 10.7, 30.7 +/- 10.4 and 43.1 +/- 17.2 units/liter in fathers (n = 87), mothers (n = 87) and offspring (n = 169), respectively. Plasma ACE was uncorrelated with age, height, weight, or blood pressure in the parents, but a negative correlation with age was observed in offspring (r = -.32). The age-adjusted familial correlations of plasma ACE were .038, .166, .323 and .303 for spouses, father-offspring, mother-offspring, and siblings, respectively. The results of the genetic analysis suggest that a major gene may affect the interindividual variability of plasma ACE, with different codominant effects in parents and offspring. According to this model, the major gene effect accounts for 4.8, 4.0, and 10.8 units/liter of the overall mean and for 29%, 29% and 75% of the variance of age-adjusted ACE in fathers, mothers, and offspring, respectively. The estimate of the probability of the less frequent allele is .26, and the major gene effect is approximately twice as great in high homozygotes than in heterozygotes and in offspring than in parents. The results of this study demonstrate the occurrence of a familial resemblance of plasma ACE activity in healthy families and suggest that this observation can be explained by the segregation of a major gene.