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Transport of vitamin D3 from its sites of cutaneous synthesis into the circulation has been assumed to be via the plasma vitamin D binding protein (DBP). We studied vitamin D transport from the skin in seven healthy volunteers who received whole body irradiation with 27 mJ/cm2 dosage of ultraviolet B light (290-320 nm). Samples of venous blood were collected serially in EDTA and immediately chilled. In KBr, plasma samples were ultracentrifuged to provide a rapid separation of proteins of density < and > 1.3 g/ml. Upper and lower phases and serial fractions were analyzed for vitamin D3 (extraction, HPLC), cholesterol (enzyme assay), and human DBP (hDBP) (radial immunodiffusion). Total plasma vitamin D (basal level < 1 ng/ml) increased by 10 h and peaked at 24 h (9 +/- 1 ng/ml). 98% of the D3 remained at the density > 1.3 layers for up to 7 d, whereas cholesterol (> 85%) was detected at density < 1.3 and all of the hDBP was at density > 1.3. In three volunteers who each ingested 1.25 mg of vitamin D2, the total plasma D2 increased to 90 +/- 32 ng/ml by 4 h, and the D2 was evenly distributed between the upper and lower layers at 4, 8, and 24 h after the dose, indicating a continuing association of the vitamin with chylomicrons and lipoproteins, as well as with hDBP. Actin affinity chromatography removed D3 from plasma of irradiated subjects, indicating the association of the D3 with DBP. These findings indicate that endogenously synthesized vitamin D3 travels in plasma almost exclusively on DBP, providing for a slower hepatic delivery of the vitamin D and the more sustained increase in plasma 25-hydroxycholecalciferol observed after depot, parenteral administration of vitamin D. In contrast, the association of orally administered vitamin D with chylomicrons and lipoproteins allows for receptor-mediated, rapid hepatic delivery of vitamin D, and the reported rapid but less-sustained increases in plasma 25-hydroxycholecalciferol.