The extent to which women of reproductive age are able to convert the n-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALNA) to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) was investigated in vivo by measuring the concentrations of labelled fatty acids in plasma for 21 d following the ingestion of [U-13C]ALNA (700 mg). [13C]ALNA excursion was greatest in cholesteryl ester (CE) (224 (sem 70) micromol/l over 21 d) compared with triacylglycerol (9-fold), non-esterified fatty acids (37-fold) and phosphatidylcholine (PC, 7-fold). EPA excursion was similar in both PC (42 (sem 8) micromol/l) and CE (42 (sem 9) micromol/l) over 21 d. In contrast both [13C]DPA and [13C]DHA were detected predominately in PC (18 (sem 4) and 27 (sem 7) micromol/l over 21 d, respectively). Estimated net fractional ALNA inter-conversion was EPA 21 %, DPA 6 % and DHA 9 %. Approximately 22 % of administered [13C]ALNA was recovered as 13CO2 on breath over the first 24 h of the study. These results suggest differential partitioning of ALNA, EPA and DHA between plasma lipid classes, which may facilitate targeting of individual n-3 fatty acids to specific tissues. Comparison with previous studies suggests that women may possess a greater capacity for ALNA conversion than men. Such metabolic capacity may be important for meeting the demands of the fetus and neonate for DHA during pregnancy and lactation. Differences in DHA status between women both in the non-pregnant state and in pregnancy may reflect variations in metabolic capacity for DHA synthesis.