We have studied the relative contributions of monomeric (m-) and polymeric IgA (p-IgA) and of IgA1 and IgA2 to total serum IgA in healthy adults and patients with liver disease (LD) or with other diseases and high serum IgA. Serum concentration of total secretory component (SC) was also determined. In addition, fractional catabolic rates (FCR) and synthetic rates for both m- and p-IgA were measured in nine controls and nine cirrhotics. Our results support four main conclusions: (a) In healthy adults, intravascular p-IgA contributes to only 4-22% (mean 12%) of serum IgA, because its FCR and synthetic rate are approximately two times higher and four times smaller, respectively, than those of intravascular m-IgA. (b) in LD, biliary obstruction does not result in a significant increase in serum p-IgA unlike in rats and rabbits, indicating that in humans the SC-dependent biliary transport of p-IgA plays a much less significant role in selective removal of p-IgA from plasma than in rats and rabbits. (c) In contrast to biliary obstruction, parenchymal LD results in a significant and preferential increase in serum p-IgA, which in cirrhotics correlates with a selective reduction of the p-IgA-FCR. This supports a role for the human liver in selective removal of p-IgA from plasma, but another mechanism than the SC-dependent biliary transport should be considered. (d) Total SC, p-IgA, and IgA2 in serum are unlinked parameters, not necessarily reflecting mucosal events. A marked increase in serum SC occurs almost selectively in LD. Although a shift to IgA2 is suggested in Crohn's disease and alcoholic cirrhosis, a shift to IgA1 frequently associated to a shift to p-IgA occurs in chronic active LD, primary Sicca, and connective tissue diseases.