A quantitative sandwich ELISA for E-selectin in the fluid phase (soluble E-selectin, sEs) has been developed that is sensitive to 100 pg/ml. The assay shows no reactivity with either L- or P-selectins. We have used this to determine the fate of E-selectin after cell-surface expression and to test whether levels measured in vivo may represent the state of endothelial activation. E-selectin was first detectable in supernatants of IL-1-stimulated endothelial cells at 24 h, and increased slowly up until 72 h. However, over this time period the total E-selectin detectable in the system (cells plus supernatants) declined dramatically. 125I-surface-labeled endothelial cells cultured for 24 h show an E-selectin of reduced m.w. in the supernatant, indicating that the molecule is shed from the surface. The shed form also appears to be slightly smaller than the intact membrane form as determined from immunoprecipitation and molecular sieving studies. In addition, the cytoplasmic domain of the molecule found in supernatants of activated endothelial cells and in serum is not intact as determined by loss of reactivity with an antipeptide antibody specific for the cytoplasmic domain. We have examined the sera of 71 normal individuals. Without exception, sEs was found in serum in the range of 0.13 to 2.8 ng/ml, suggesting that even in the absence of overt inflammatory processes E-selectin is being synthesized and released into the bloodstream. In addition, bacteremic patients with hypotension, but not those without, showed markedly elevated sEs values. As determined by cell-binding studies, the blood-derived form of E-selectin is biologically active.