The structure of the potent inflammatory mediator, platelet-activating factor, is 1-O-alkyl-2-acetyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine (AGEPC, PAF-acether). Human sera contain an acid labile factor (ALF) that is a Ca+2-independent 2-acylhydrolase-specific for AGEPC and AGEPC-like molecules. The enzyme functions by catalytically removing the sn-2 acetyl moiety from AGEPC, producing the biologically inactive sn-2 hydroxy form or 2-lyso-GEPC. Incubation of ALF with sn-2 acyl PAF analogs indicated that the enzyme hydrolyzes the sn-2 fatty acid only if the chain length is five carbons or less, the sn-1 position fatty acid length is greater than 10 carbon units, and at least one methyl group is present on the terminal amine of the choline group. The enzyme was active with either an ether or ester linkage at the sn-1 position. ALF is inactivated by heating to 65 degrees C for 30 min. It is pronase and trypsin sensitive but resistant to papain and papain with dithiothreitol. Further characteristics of human ALF indicated a broad pH range of activity with an optimum of pH 6.2 and an isoelectric point of 6.2 to 6.7. The specificity and Ca+2 independence of human ALF sets it apart from phospholipase A2. It is proposed that human ALF be called human serum PAF-acylhydrolase to distinguish it from other hydrolases currently known to exist.