Plasma apolipoprotein E (apoE) is a ligand for the cellular uptake of cholesterol-rich plasma lipoproteins. ApoE also inhibits mitogen-stimulated lymphocyte proliferation and gonadotropin-stimulated ovarian theca/interstitial cell androgen production. To address the mechanism(s) by which apoE is active and to understand its interaction with the target cells, we prepared and examined the inhibitory activity of a series of apoE synthetic peptides. ApoE peptides representing amino acid residues 93-112, 141-155, 161-171, 172-182, and 174-193 were not active in either bioassay. However, specific inhibition of both lymphocyte proliferation and ovarian androgen production was observed with a self-conjugate of peptide-(141-155). Furthermore, a synthesized dimeric peptide representing two repeats of sequence-(141-155) (i.e. (141-155)-(141-155] was active as well. In both bioassays, the inhibition observed was not a result of direct cell killing. Furthermore, these apoE peptides exhibited activities with characteristics that were shared with those of native apoE. The results indicate that amino acid residues 141-155 of apoE are responsible for the biological activity of apoE. Furthermore, the results suggest that dimers or multimers of native apoE may be a biologically important species.