Liberation of arachidonic acid by cytosolic phospholipase A(2) (cPLA(2)) upon cell activation is often the initial and rate-limiting step in leukotriene and prostaglandin biosynthesis. This review discusses the essential features of cPLA(2) isoforms and addresses intriguing insights into the catalytic and regulatory mechanisms. Gene expression, posttranslational modification and subcellular localization can regulate these isoforms. Translocation of cPLA(2)alpha from the cytosol to the perinuclear region in response to calcium transients is critical for the immediate arachidonic acid release. Therefore, particular emphasis is placed on the mechanism of the translocation and the role of the proteins and lipids implicated in this process. The regional distribution and cellular localization of cPLA(2) may help to better understand its function as an arachidonic acid supplier to downstream enzymes and as a regulator of specific cellular processes.