The development of a reliable assay for human synovial fluid phospholipase A2 (HSF PLA2) is important for the kinetic characterization of the enzyme and for the identification of enzyme inhibitors. This enzyme behaves differently from other extracellular PLA2s in many standard phospholipase assays and is generally assayed using radiolabeled, autoclaved Escherichia coli as a substrate. We have now developed a nonradioactive, continuous, spectrophotometric assay for this enzyme that is adaptable for use with a microtiterplate reader and is suitable for screening enzyme inhibitors. The assay uses a thioester derivative of diheptanoyl phosphatidylcholine as a substrate, with which the enzyme displays a specific activity of about 25 mumol min-1 mg-1. The substrate concentration curve fits a Hill equation with an apparent Km of 500 microM and a Hill coefficient of two. The enzyme has a pH optimum of 7.5 in this assay and requires about 10 mM Ca2+ for maximal activity. The presence of 0.3 mM Triton X-100 was necessary to solubilize the substrate; however, higher concentrations of the detergent inhibited enzyme activity. Using this spectrophotometric assay, inhibition of HSF PLA2 by a thioether phosphonate phosphatidylethanolamine analog was observed with an IC50 of 18 microM.