Major membrane lipids were determined in specimens of human peripheral nerve (cauda equina) and spinal cord of 10 subjects aged 20-70 years. The same lipids were also assayed in myelin from the same tissues isolated with two different procedures and in myelin of cauda equina from 3 subjects aged 17-91 years isolated with a third method. The concentrations (mean and standard deviation) of phospholipids were 90 +/- 11 and 96 +/- 9 nmol/g fresh weight; of cholesterol 70 +/- 15 and 101 +/- 16; of cerebroside 19 +/- 3 and 41 +/- 7; of sulfatide 10 +/- 1 and 11 +/- l; and of gangliosides 0.80 +/- 0.08 and 0.40 +/- 0.05 N in cauda equina and spinal cord, respectively. The proportion of ethanolamine phosphoglyceride was lower and that of sphingomyelin higher in cauda equina than in spinal cord. The myelin of peripheral nerve and spinal cord contained almost the same proportions of lipids as the whole tissue. The protein-bound sialic acid content was 3-fold higher than the lipid-bound sialic acid content in cauda myelin. The fatty acid patterns of choline, ethanolamine, inositol and serine phosphoglycerides of spinal cord and its myelin, were very similar to those of cerebral white matter, while the phosphoglycerides of cauda equina had higher proportions of monoenoic acids and lower proportions of polyunsaturated fatty acids. The fatty acid patterns of sphingomyelin, cerebroside and sulfatide of spinal cord were similar to those of cerebral white matter, while those of cauda equina contained significantly more saturated fatty acids. This suggests that the lipid and fatty acid compositions of peripheral nerve are particularly suitable for the formation of a tightly packed myelin membrane which can be a powerful shield against infections and other injuries.