Plasma of patients with Tangier disease (TD) is devoid of alpha-LpA-I (apolipoprotein A-I-containing lipoprotein), which in normolipidemic plasma constitutes the majority of high density lipoprotein (HDL). The residual amounts of apolipoprotein A-I (apo A-I) in TD plasma have electrophoretic prebeta1-LpA-I mobility. We have previously demonstrated that TD plasma does not convert prebeta1-LpA-I into alpha-LpA-I. In this study we found that plasmas of normolipidemic controls, apo A-I-deficient patients and patients with fish-eye disease, but not plasmas of six TD patients, convert biotinylated lipid-free apo A-I into alpha-LpA-I. Supplementation of plasma with free oleic acid or fatty acid free albumin neither inhibited conversion activity in normal plasmas nor reconstituted it in TD plasma. In normal plasma the conversion activity was assessed in HDL and in the lipoprotein-free fraction. The latter fraction, however, generated larger particles only in the presence of exogenous phospholipid vesicles. To obtain particles with alpha-mobility, these vesicles had to contain phosphatidylinositol and/or cholesterol. Lipoprotein-depleted TD plasma did not convert lipid-free apo A-I into alpha-LpA-I even in the presence of exogenous vesicles with phospholipids or cholesterol. Taken together we conclude that disturbed transfer of glycerophospholipds onto apo A-I or prebeta1-LpA-I prevents maturation of HDL and thereby possibly causes deficiency of HDL cholesterol in patients with TD. Moreover, the lack of alpha-LpA-I in TD plasma together with its failure to convert exogenous apo A-I into an alpha-migrating particle provide specific tests for the diagnosis of TD.