Previous studies have demonstrated the presence of apoprotein (apo) E protein and message in arterial lesions. To determine the source of the synthesized apoE, we performed simultaneous in situ hybridization and immunocytochemistry on human and rabbit atherosclerotic tissue. Studies of serial sections of aortic atherosclerotic lesions from humans and hypercholesterolemic New Zealand White rabbits and Watanabe heritable hyperlipidemic rabbits revealed a similar pattern of macrophage-specific apoE expression in the rabbit and human lesions. In early lesions of rabbit atherosclerotic tissue, in which many macrophages were present, there was abundant expression of apoE mRNA. Northern blot analyses of total mRNA obtained from arterial macrophage-derived foam cells, freshly isolated from ballooned, cholesterol-fed New Zealand White rabbits, demonstrated positive hybridization with an apoE-specific riboprobe. Western blot analyses of conditioned media from the isolated foam cells placed in culture for up to 24 hours demonstrated the presence of secreted apoE. These studies demonstrated that in atherosclerotic lesions, arterial wall macrophages synthesize and secrete apoE and probably account for most of the apoE synthesized in the atherosclerotic artery.