Apolipoprotein E plays a central role in clearance of lipoprotein remnants by serving as a ligand for low-density lipoprotein and apolipoprotein E receptors. Three common alleles (apolipoprotein E(2), E(3) and E(4)) give rise to six phenotypes. Apolipoprotein E(3) is the ancestral form. Common apolipoprotein E isoforms derive from nucleotide substitutions in codons 112 and 158. Resulting cysteine-arginine substitutions cause differences in: affinities for low-density lipoprotein and apolipoprotein E receptors, low-density lipoprotein receptor activities, distribution of apolipoprotein E among lipoproteins, low-density lipoprotein formation rate, and cholesterol absorption. Accompanying changes in triglycerides, cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein may promote atherosclerosis development. Over 90% of patients with familial dysbetalipoproteinaemia have apolipoprotein E(2)/E(2). Apolipoprotein E(4) may promote atherosclerosis by its low-density lipoprotein raising effect. Establishment of apolipoprotein E isoforms may be important for patients with diabetes mellitus and several non-atherosclerotic diseases. Apolipoprotein E phenotyping exploits differences in isoelectric points. Isoelectric focusing uses gels that contain pH 4-7 ampholytes and urea. Serum is directly applied, or prepurified by delipidation, lipoprotein precipitation or dialysation. Isoelectric focusing is followed by immunofixation/protein staining. Another approach is electro- or diffusion blotting, followed by protein staining or immunological detection with anti-apolipoprotein E antibodies and an enzyme-conjugated second antibody. Apolipoprotein E genotyping demonstrates underlying point mutations. Analyses of polymerase chain reaction products are done by allele-specific oligonucleotide probes, restriction fragment length polymorphism, single-stranded conformational polymorphism, the primer-guided nucleotide incorporation assay, or denaturating gradient gel electrophoresis. Detection with primers that either or not initiate amplification is performed with the amplification refractory mutation system. Disparities between phenotyping and genotyping may derive from isoelectric focusing methods that do not adequately separate apolipoprotein E posttranslational variants, storage artifacts or faint isoelectric focusing bands.