Our recent findings indicate that glucose-induced insulin secretion from isolated pancreatic islets is temporally associated with accumulation of substantial amounts of free arachidonic acid and that arachidonate may serve as a second messenger for intracellular calcium mobilization in islets. In an effort to determine the source of this released arachidonate, the endogenous fatty acid composition of phospholipids from islets has been determined by thin-layer chromatographic separation of the phospholipids, methanolysis to the fatty acid methyl esters, and quantitative gas chromatographic analyses. The relative abundance of phospholipids in islets as judged by their fatty acid content was phosphatidylcholine (PC), 0.63; phosphatidy-lethanolamine (PE), 0.23; phosphatidylinositol (PI), 0.067; phosphatidylserine (PS), 0.049. Arachidonate constituted 17% of the total islet fatty acid content, and PC contained 43% of total islet arachidonate. Islets incubated with [ 3H]arachidonate in the presence of 28 mM d-glucose incorporated radiolabel into PC with a considerably higher specific activity than that of PE, PS or PI. The total fatty acid content of PC from islets incubated with 28 mM glucose for 30 min was significantly lower than that of islets incubated with 3 mM glucose, and smaller effects were observed with PE, PS and PI. The molar decrement in PC arachidonate was 3.2 pmol/islet under these conditions, which is sufficient to account for the previously observed accumulation of free arachidonate (2 pmol/islet). A sensitive method involving negative ion-chemical ionization-mass spectrometric analyses of the pentafluorobenzyl esters of fatty acids derived from trace amounts of lysophosphatidylcholine (lyso-PC) was developed, and glucose-stimulation was found to reduce islet lyso-PC content by about 10-fold. These findings indicate that the insulin secretagogue d-glucose induces phospholipid hydrolysis in islets and suggest that PC may be the major source of free arachidonate which accumulates in glucose-stimulated islets.