The response of a yeast unsaturated fatty acid auxotroph, defective in delta 9-desaturase activity, to heat and ethanol stresses was examined. The most heat- and ethanol-tolerant cells had membranes enriched with oleic acid (C18:1), followed in order by cells enriched with linoleic (C18:2) and linolenic (C18:3) acids. Cells subjected to a heat shock (25-37 degrees C for 30 min) accumulated trehalose and synthesized typical heat shock proteins. Although there were no obvious differences in protein profiles attributable to lipid supplementation of the mutant, relative protein synthesis as determined by densitometric analysis of autoradiograms suggested that hsp expression was different. However, there was no consistent relationship between the synthesis of heat shock proteins and the acquisition of thermotolerance in the lipid supplemented auxotroph or related wild type. Furthermore, trehalose accumulation was also not closely related to stress tolerance. On the other hand, the data presented indicated a more consistent role for membrane lipid composition in stress tolerance than trehalose, heat shock proteins, or ergosterol. We suggest that the sensitivity of C18:3-enriched cells to heat and ethanol may be attributable to membrane damage associated with increases in membrane fluidity and oxygen-derived free radical attack of membrane lipids.