Unsaturated lysophosphatidylcholines (lysoPtdCho) bound to albumin circulate in blood plasma and seem to be a novel transport system for carrying polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) to tissues that are rich in these fatty acids, such as the brain. The potential of these lysoPtdCho as a significant source of PUFA for cells has been assessed by comparing their plasma concentration with that of unsaturated non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA) bound to albumin. In humans, the PUFA concentration was 25.9+/-3.1 nmol/ml for these lysoPtdCho, compared with 33.4+/-9.6 nmol/ml for NEFA; in rats the equivalent values are 14.2+/-0.6 and 13.1+/-1.1 nmol/ml respectively (means+/-S.E.M.). The lysoPtdCho arachidonic acid content was 2-fold (human) and 5-fold (rat) higher than that of NEFA. In human and rat plasma, unsaturated lysoPtdCho were associated mainly with albumin rather than lipoproteins. The rate and extent of the acyl group shift from the sn-2 to sn-1 position of these lysoPtdCho were studied by the incubation of 1-lyso, 2-[(14)C]C(18:2)n-6-glycerophosphocholine (GPC) with plasma. The rapid isomerization of this lipid occurred at pH 7 (20% isomerization within 2 min) and was not prevented by its association with albumin. The position of the acyl group in the lysoPtdCho circulating in plasma was studied by collecting blood directly in organic solvents containing 1-lyso,2-[(14)C]C(18:2)n-6-GPC as a marker of isomerization that occurred during sampling and analysis. Approx. 50% of the PUFA was located at the sn-2 position, demonstrating that substantial concentrations of 2-acyl-lysoPtdCho are present in plasma and are available for tissue uptake, where they can be reacylated at the sn-1 position to form membrane phospholipids.