The formation of phosphatidic acid (PA) from lysophosphatidic acid (LPA), diacylglycerol, or phosphatidylcholine plays a key role in the regulation of intracellular membrane fission events, but the underlying molecular mechanism has not been resolved. A likely possibility is that PA affects local membrane curvature facilitating membrane bending and fission. To examine this possibility, we determined the spontaneous radius of curvature (R(0p)) of PA and LPA, carrying oleoyl fatty acids, using well-established X-ray diffraction methods. We found that, under physiological conditions of pH and salt concentration (pH 7.0, 150 mM NaCl), the R(0p) values of PA and LPA were -46 A and +20 A, respectively. Thus PA has considerable negative spontaneous curvature while LPA has the most positive spontaneous curvature of any membrane lipid measured to date. The further addition of Ca(2+) did not significantly affect lipid spontaneous curvature; however, omitting NaCl from the hydration buffer greatly reduced the spontaneous curvature of PA, turning it into a cylindrically shaped lipid molecule (R(0p) of -1.3 x 10(2) A). Our quantitative data on the spontaneous radius of curvature of PA and LPA at a physiological pH and salt concentration will be instrumental in developing future models of biomembrane fission.