Enzymatic and lipid transfer reactions involved in reverse cholesterol transport were studied in healthy and lecithin:cholesterol acyltransferase (LCAT), deficient subjects. Fasting plasma samples obtained from each individual were labeled with [3H]cholesterol and subsequently fractionated by gel chromatography. The radioactivity patterns obtained corresponded to the elution volumes of the three major ultracentrifugally isolated lipoprotein classes (very low density lipoproteins (VLDL), low density lipoproteins (LDL), and high density lipoproteins (HDL)). In healthy subjects, the LCAT activity was consistently found in association with the higher molecular weight portion of HDL. Similar observations were made when exogenous purified LCAT was added to the LCAT-deficient plasma prior to chromatography. Incubation of the plasma samples at 37 °C resulted in significant reduction of unesterified cholesterol (FC) and an increase in esterified cholesterol (CE). Comparison of the data of FC and CE mass measurements of the lipoprotein fractions from normal and LCAT-deficient plasma indicates that: (i) In normal plasma, most of the FC for the LCAT reaction originates from LDL even when large amounts of FC are available from VLDL. (ii) The LCAT reaction takes place on the surface of HDL. (iii) The product of the LCAT reaction (CE) may be transferred to either VLDL or LDL although VLDL appears to be the preferred acceptor when present in sufficient amounts, (iv) CE transfer from HDL to lower density lipoproteins is at least partially impaired in LCAT-deficient patients. Additional studies using triglyceride-rich lipoproteins indicated that neither the capacity to accept CE from HDL nor the lower CE transfer activity were responsible for the decreased amount of CE transferred to VLDL and chylomicrons in LCAT-deficient plasma.