Studies have been performed to determine the proportion of the esterified cholesterol in high-density lipoproteins (HDL), low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) that is attributable to a direct action of lecithin: cholesterol acyltransferase on each lipoprotein fraction. Esterification of [3H]cholesterol was examined in 37 degrees C incubations of either: (a) unseparated whole plasma, (b) plasma reconstituted after prior ultracentrifugation to separate the 1.21 g/ml supernatant, (c) a mixture comprising the 1.21 g/ml supernatant of plasma and purified lecithin: cholesterol acyltransferase or (d) the same mixture as (c) after supplementation with a preparation of partially purified lipid transfer protein. Each of these incubations was performed using samples collected from four different subjects, two of whom had normal and two of whom had elevated concentrations of plasma triacylglycerol. At the completion of 3-h incubations, the lipoproteins were separated into multiple fractions by gel filtration to obtain a continuous profile of esterified [3H]cholesterol across the whole spectrum of lipoproteins. There was an appearance of esterified [3H]cholesterol in each of the major lipoprotein fractions in all incubations. In unseparated plasma, 56% of the total (mean of four experiments) was in HDL, 33% in LDL and 11% in VLDL. A comparable distribution was observed in the incubations of reconstituted plasma and in the samples to which partially purified lipid transfer protein had been added. In the absence of lipid transfer protein activity in incubations containing purified lecithin: cholesterol acyltransferase, 73% of the esterified [3H]cholesterol was in HDL, 25% in LDL and only 1% in VLDL. It has been concluded that at physiological concentrations of lipoproteins, 70-80% of the cholesterol esterifying action of lecithin: cholesterol acyltransferase is confined to the HDL fraction, with most of the remainder involving the LDL fraction. Of the newly formed esterified cholesterol incorporated into LDL during incubations of unseparated plasma, it was apparent that more than 70% was independent of activity of the lipid transfer protein. Of that incorporated into VLDL in unseparated plasma, in contrast, almost 90% was derived as a transfer from other fractions as a consequence of activity of the lipid transfer protein.