Effects of palmitic, stearic, oleic, and linoleic acid on mitogen-induced DNA synthesis, on production of IL-1 beta, IL-2, IFN-gamma, and TNF-alpha, and on IL-2R expression were determined in human peripheral lymphocytes. Free fatty acids (FFA) were added over a wide range of concentrations to cells cultured under serum free conditions with fatty acid free albumin. DNA synthesis was stimulated by low and inhibited by high FFA concentrations. Physiological concentrations were stimulatory, except for linoleic acid. Cytokine production became affected by all FFA tested. Palmitic acid enhanced the release of IFN-gamma at concentrations that diminished TNF-alpha production. Saturated fatty acids were significantly more potent than unsaturated fatty acids in affecting cytokine production. IFN-gamma secretion was significantly more stimulated or inhibited by the various FFA compared with the other cytokines. IL-2R expression correlated with the production of IL-2. When tested in combination, stimulatory as well as inhibitory effects of the individual FFA became attenuated. It is suggested that palmitic, stearic, oleic, and linoleic acid are physiological regulators of DNA synthesis and cytokine release in human peripheral lymphocytes. Modulation of FFA ratios may be an effective means for the fine tuning of the immune system. As secretory mechanisms of cytokines appear to exhibit substrate specificity for FFA, the release of individual cytokines may be selectively influenced by FFA.