The serum amyloid A (SAA) family of proteins is encoded by multiple genes that display allelic variation and a high degree of homology in mammals. Triggered by inflammation after stimulation of hepatocytes by lymphokine-mediated processes, the concentrations of SAA may increase during the acute-phase reaction to levels 1000-fold greater than those found in the noninflammatory state. In addition to its role as an acute-phase reactant, SAA (104 amino acids, 12 kDa) is considered to be the precursor protein of secondary reactive amyloidosis, in which the N-terminal portion is incorporated into the bulk of amyloid fibrils. However, the association with lipoproteins of the high-density range and subsequent modulation of the metabolic properties of its physiological carrier appear to be the principal role of SAA. Because SAA may displace apolipoprotein A-I, the major protein component of native high density lipoprotein (HDL), during the acute-phase reaction, the present study was aimed at (1) investigating binding properties of native and acute-phase (SAA-enriched) HDL by J774 macrophages, (2) elucidating whether the presence of SAA on HDL particles affects selective uptake of HDL-associated cholesteryl esters, and (3) comparing cellular cholesterol efflux mediated by native and acute-phase HDL. Both the total and the specific binding at 4 degrees C of rabbit acute-phase HDL were approximately 2-fold higher than for native HDL. Nonlinear regression analysis revealed K(d) values of 7.0 x 10(-7) mol/L (native HDL) and 3.1 x 10(-7) mol/L (acute-phase HDL), respectively. The corresponding B(max) values were 203 ng of total lipoprotein per milligram of cell protein (native HDL) and 250 ng of total lipoprotein per milligram of cell protein (acute-phase HDL). At 37 degrees C, holoparticle turnover was slightly enhanced for acute-phase HDL, a fact reflected by 2-fold higher degradation rates. In contrast, the presence of SAA on HDL specifically increased (1. 7-fold) the selective uptake of HDL cholesteryl esters from acute-phase HDL by J774 macrophages, a widely used in vitro model to study foam cell formation and cholesterol efflux properties. Although ligand blotting experiments with solubilized J774 membrane proteins failed to identify the scavenger receptor-BI as a binding protein for both native and acute-phase HDL, 2 binding proteins with molecular masses of 100 and 72 kDa, the latter comigrating with CD55 (also termed decay-accelerating factor), were identified. During cholesterol efflux studies, it became apparent that the ability of acute-phase HDL with regard to cellular cholesterol removal was considerably lower than that for native HDL. This was reflected by a 1.7-fold increase in tau/2 values (22 versus 36 hours; native versus acute-phase HDL). Our observations of increased HDL cholesteryl ester uptake and reduced cellular cholesterol efflux (acute-phase versus native HDL) suggest that displacement of apolipoprotein A-I by SAA results in considerable altered metabolic properties of its main physiological carrier. These changes in the apolipoprotein moieties appear (at least in the in vitro system tested) to transform an originally antiatherogenic into a proatherogenic lipoprotein particle.