The pattern of serum bilirubins was determined in serum of humans and rats with unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia due to increased pigment load or defective hepatic conjugation. Bilirubin ester conjugates were present in all serum samples tested and were identified as bilirubin 1-O-acyl glucuronides. In Gilbert's syndrome, the concentration of total conjugates was comparable to the values in healthy control subjects. Because the concentration of unconjugated pigment was increased, the fraction of conjugated relative to total bilirubins was markedly decreased. Sera from patients with Crigler-Najjar disease differed from those with Gilbert's syndrome by the higher unconjugated bilirubin levels and the undetectability of diconjugated bilirubins. A striking finding was that in hemolytic disease, the concentration of both monoconjugates and diconjugates was enhanced in parallel with the increase of unconjugated pigment. Therefore, the fraction of conjugated relative to total bilirubins remained within the normal range. As in Gilbert's syndrome, heterozygote R/APfd-j/+ rats with impaired hepatic bilirubin conjugation exhibit an increased unconjugated bilirubin level in serum, whereas the concentration of total conjugates was comparable to the values in normal rats. In serum of normal rats loaded intraperitoneally with unconjugated bilirubin, both unconjugated and mono- and diconjugated bilirubins were increased in parallel so that the ratio of unconjugated to esterified pigment remained unaffected. Decreased hepatic conjugation or increased bilirubin load was associated with a lower percentage of diconjugates relative to total conjugates both in human and rat serum. The present results are consistent with a compartmental model in which there is bidirectional transfer across the sinusoidal membrane for unconjugated bilirubin as well as for the bilirubin glucuronides. Because typical patterns of serum bilirubins are found in Gilbert's syndrome and patients with hemolytic hyperbilirubinemia, determination of esterified bilirubins in serum is of value to study the pathophysiology and the differential diagnosis of unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia.