The principal supply of carbon precursors for fatty acid synthesis in leaf tissue has been a much debated topic, with some experiments suggesting a direct supply from the C3 products of photosynthetic carbon fixation and colleagues suggesting the utilization of free acetate (for which concentrations in leaves in the range of 0.05-1.4 mM have been reported). To address this issue we first reassessed the in vivo rate of fatty acid synthesis using a new method, that of [13C]carbon dioxide labeling of intact Arabidopsis plants with the subsequent analysis of fatty acids by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). This method gave an average value of 2.3 mmoles carbon atoms h-1 mg chlorophyll-1 for photosynthetic tissues. The method was extended by isotopic dilution analysis to measure the rate of fatty acid synthesis in the dark. There was negligible fatty acid synthesis (< 5% of the rate in the light) in the dark. In addition, the method allowed an estimate of the absolute rate of fatty acid degradation of about 4% of the total fatty acid content per day. With the in vivo rate of fatty acid synthesis in the light defined, if the bulk tissue acetate concentration available for fatty acid synthesis is 1 mM, this acetate pool can sustain fatty acid synthesis for approximately 60 min. When the leaves of Arabidopsis, barley and pea were given a 5 min pulse of [14C]carbon dioxide, the label rapidly appeared in fatty acids with a lag phase of less than 2-3 min. Continuous labeling with [14C]carbon dioxide, for up to 1 h, showed a similar result. Furthermore, 14C-label in free acetate was less than 5% of that in fatty acids. In conclusion, these data suggest that either the bulk pool of acetate is not involved in fatty acid synthesis or the concentration of acetate must be less than 0.05 mM under strong illumination.