Role of the apolipoprotein E polymorphism in determining normal plasma lipid and lipoprotein variation

Am J Hum Genet. 1985 Mar;37(2):268-85.


The structural gene locus for apolipoprotein E (apo E) is polymorphic. Three common alleles (epsilon 2, epsilon 3, epsilon 4) code for three major isoforms in plasma and determine six apo E phenotypes that may be identified by isoelectric focusing on polyacrylamide. To establish what fraction of the inherited variation in a normal plasma lipid and lipoprotein profile is attributable to the segregation of the common alleles at the apo E gene locus, we have estimated the average apo E allelic effects on plasma cholesterol (C), triglycerides, very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL)-C, VLDL-apo B, low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-C, LDL-apo B, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL)-C in a representative sample of normolipidemic individuals from Ottawa, Canada. Data from published studies were also analyzed by the same statistical procedures. As much as 16% of the genetic variance (8.3% of the total variance) for LDL-C could be accounted for by the apo E gene locus. After correction for differences in age, sex, height, and weight, it was found that the epsilon 2 allele lowered and the epsilon 4 allele raised total cholesterol, LDL-C, and LDL-apo B. No other gene has been identified that contributes as much to normal cholesterol variability. Analysis of these data and those of others also indicates that the apo E locus imparts a differential susceptibility to a variety of factors that promote hyperlipidemia. The hypothesis is proposed that the epsilon 2 allele protects against coronary heart disease (CHD) and, hence, gives a reproductive advantage that is balanced by a predisposition to CHD when the epsilon 2 is combined with a second, independent causative factor to give a reproductive disadvantage. A similar mechanism is proposed for the maintenance of the epsilon 4 allele in the population.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alleles*
  • Apolipoproteins E / blood
  • Apolipoproteins E / genetics*
  • Female
  • Gene Frequency
  • Genes
  • Humans
  • Lipids / blood*
  • Lipids / genetics
  • Lipoproteins / blood*
  • Lipoproteins / genetics
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Polymorphism, Genetic*
  • Reference Values


  • Apolipoproteins E
  • Lipids
  • Lipoproteins