Lipoprotein oxidation induced in vitro in whole plasma is expected to represent a more relevant model of the lipoprotein oxidation in the arterial wall than the in vitro oxidation of single isolated lipoproteins, e.g. low density lipoprotein (LDL). However, it remains unclear, how lipoprotein oxidation occurring in plasma is related to chemical composition and properties of the latter as well as to those of individual plasma lipoproteins. The present study was undertaken to characterize, how different constituents of human plasma contribute to the oxidizability of plasma lipoproteins oxidized directly in plasma samples. Oxidizability of plasma lipoproteins was assessed as oxidizability of whole heparin plasma and was measured spectrophotometrically as an increase in absorbance at 234 nm. To relate plasma oxidizability to its chemical composition and properties, plasma hydrophilic and lipophilic antioxidants, fatty acids, total lipids and TRAP were measured. To relate plasma oxidizability to the properties of individual lipoproteins, chemical composition and oxidizability were evaluated for LDL. We found that the oxidation kinetics of heparin plasma (diluted 150-fold and oxidized by 50 microM Cu2+) was characterized by three consecutive phases similar to the lag-, propagation and decomposition phases of LDL oxidation. Plasma oxidizability measured as different characteristics of these phases correlated negatively with plasma initial SH-groups, albumin, ascorbate, bilirubin, alpha-tocopherol, ubiquinol-10, free cholesterol, monounsaturated and saturated fatty acid content and positively with plasma initial total cholesterol, cholesterol ester and polyunsaturated fatty acid content. Plasma oxidizability measured as a rate of conjugated diene accumulation after different periods of oxidation correlated negatively with plasma initial albumin, urate, alpha-carotene and beta-carotene content. A positive correlation between oxidizabilities of whole plasma and LDL (isolated from the same plasma samples and oxidized by 14 mol Cu2+/mol LDL) was found. These data show that the oxidizability of plasma samples is critically determined by their chemical composition. They also suggest that the plasma oxidizability measured as an increase in absorbance at 234 nm may be used as a practical measure of the oxidizability of plasma lipoproteins.