Previous studies have shown that endotoxin (lipopolysaccharide [LPS])-induced death can be prevented by preincubating LPS with lipoproteins in vitro or by infusing large quantities of lipids into animals prior to LPS administration. In the present study we determined whether physiological levels of lipids also provide protection. Serum lipid levels were decreased by two different mechanisms: administration of 4-aminopyrolo-(3,4-D)pyrimide, which prevents the hepatic secretion of lipoproteins, and administration of pharmacological doses of estradiol, which increases the number of hepatic low-density lipoprotein receptors, leading to increased lipoprotein clearance. In both hypolipidemic models, LPS-induced mortality is markedly increased compared with that of controls with normal serum lipid levels. In both hypolipidemic models, administration of exogenous lipoproteins, which increase levels of serum lipids into the physiological range, reduces the increased mortality to levels similar to that seen in normal animals. In normal lipidemic animals, 63% of 125I-LPS in plasma is associated with lipoproteins, where it would not be capable of stimulating cytokine production. In contrast, in hypolipidemic animals, very little LPS (12 to 17%) is associated with lipoproteins. Rather, more LPS is in the lipoprotein-free plasma compartment, where it could exert biological effects. In both hypolipidemic models, LPS produces a greater increase in serum tumor necrosis factor levels than it does in controls (three- to fivefold increase), and administration of exogenous lipoproteins prevents this increase. Cytokines, in particular tumor necrosis factor, are responsible for most of the toxic effects of LPS. These data provide evidence that physiological levels of serum lipids protect animals from LPS toxicity. Thus, lipoproteins, in addition to playing a role in lipid transport, may have protective functions. Moreover, as part of the immune response, cytokine-induced increases in serum lipid levels may play a role in host defense by decreasing the toxicities of biological and chemical agents.