Essential fatty acids, from which PG derive, can participate in development and regulation of immune responses and have been shown to suppress inflammation and tissue injury in animal models. In this report, we investigate the effects of the immediate (DGLA, precursor to PGE1), arachidonic acid (AA, PGE precursors, dihomogamma linolenic acid (DGLA, precursor to PGE1), arachidonic acid (AA, precursor to PGE2), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA, precursor to PGE3) on IL-2 production by PHA-stimulated human PBMC. DGLA and AA inhibited IL-2 production in a dose-dependent manner: half-maximal inhibition was obtained by using the fatty acids at the dose of 10 micrograms/ml without significant effects on cell viability. EPA inhibited IL-2 production by PBMC of only some donors. Incubation of cells in the presence of oleic, stearic, and palmitic acids, which are not PG precursors, did not affect mitogen-induced IL-2 production. A progressive increase in incorporation of DGLA into cellular lipids was observed over a 48-h incubation period. IL-2 production was reduced also when PBMC were pretreated overnight with DGLA or AA and washed before exposure to PHA. Whereas addition of the cyclo-oxygenase inhibitor, indomethacin, at the time of mitogenic stimulation led to increased IL-2 production and prevented mitogen- and fatty acid-induced increases in PGE release, it had no significant effect on the capacity of the fatty acids to suppress IL-2 production. Time course experiments showed that DGLA and AA inhibited IL-2 production even at times of minimal or no PGE release by the treated cultures. Moreover, DGLA and AA inhibited IL-2 production by the human leukemia T cell line Jurkat which, when appropriately induced, is able to release high levels of IL-2 in the absence of accessory cells and measurable PGE production. Taken together, these data indicate that essential fatty acids inhibit IL-2 production directly without conversion into their cyclo-oxygenase pathway products, and suggest that human lymphocyte function may be altered profoundly by small changes in their fatty acid profile.