Human apolipoprotein E (apoE) exists as three main isoforms, differing by single amino acid substitutions, with the apoE4 isoform strongly linked to the incidence of late onset Alzheimer's disease. We have expressed and purified apoE3 and apoE4 from Escherichia coli and compared their hydrodynamic properties by gel permeation liquid chromatography, capillary electrophoresis, circular dichroism, and sedimentation methods. Sedimentation velocity experiments, employing a new method for determining the size distribution of polydisperse macromolecules in solution (Schuck, P. (2000) Biophys. J. 78, 1606-1619), provide direct evidence for the heterogeneous solution structures of apoE3 and apoE4. In a lipid-free environment, apoE3 and apoE4 exist as a slow equilibrium mixture of monomer, tetramer, octamer, and a small proportion of higher oligomers. Both sedimentation velocity and equilibrium experiments indicate that apoE4 has a greater propensity to self-associate. We also demonstrate that apoE3 and apoE4 oligomers dissociate significantly in the presence of dihexanoylphosphatidylcholine micelles (20 mm) and to a lesser extent at submicellar concentrations (4 mm). The alpha-helical content for both isoforms was almost identical (50%) in the presence and absence of dihexanoylphosphatidylcholine. These results reveal that apoE oligomers undergo phospholipid-induced dissociation to folded monomers, suggesting the monomeric form prevails on the lipoprotein surface in vivo.