The hypertriglyceridemia of infection was traditionally thought to represent the mobilization of substrate to fuel the body's response to the infectious challenge. However, we have previously shown that triglyceride-rich lipoproteins can protect against endotoxin-induced lethality. The current studies examine the mechanism by which this protection occurs. Rats infused with a lethal dose of endotoxin preincubated with chylomicrons had a reduced mortality compared with rats infused with endotoxin alone (15 vs. 76%, P < 0.001). Preincubation with chylomicrons increased the rate of clearance of endotoxin from plasma and doubled the amount of endotoxin cleared by the liver (30 +/- 1 vs. 14 +/- 2% of the total infused radiolabel, P < 0.001). In addition, autoradiographic studies showed that chylomicrons directed more of the endotoxin to hepatocytes and away from hepatic macrophages. Rats infused with endotoxin plus chylomicrons also showed reduced peak serum levels of tumor necrosis factor as compared with controls (14.2 +/- 3.3 vs. 44.9 +/- 9.5 ng/ml, mean +/- SEM, P = 0.014). In separate experiments, chylomicrons (1,000 mg triglyceride/kg) or saline were infused 10 min before the infusion of endotoxin. Chylomicron pretreatment resulted in a reduced mortality compared with rats infused with endotoxin alone (22 vs. 78%, P < 0.005). Therefore, chylomicrons can protect against endotoxin-induced lethality with and without preincubation with endotoxin. The mechanism by which chylomicrons protect against endotoxin appears to involve the shunting of endotoxin to hepatocytes and away from macrophages, thereby decreasing macrophage activation and the secretion of cytokines.