Increasing recognition of the importance of the long-chain n-3 PUFA, EPA and DHA, to cardiovascular health, and in the case of DHA to normal neurological development in the fetus and the newborn, has focused greater attention on the dietary supply of these fatty acids. The reason for low intakes of EPA and DHA in most developed countries (0.1-0.5 g/d) is the low consumption of oily fish, the richest dietary source of these fatty acids. An important question is whether dietary intake of the precursor n-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (alphaLNA), can provide sufficient amounts of tissue EPA and DHA by conversion through the n-3 PUFA elongation-desaturation pathway. alphaLNA is present in marked amounts in plant sources, including green leafy vegetables and commonly-consumed oils such as rape-seed and soyabean oils, so that increased intake of this fatty acid would be easier to achieve than via increased fish consumption. However, alphaLNA-feeding studies and stable-isotope studies using alphaLNA, which have addressed the question of bioconversion of alphaLNA to EPA and DHA, have concluded that in adult men conversion to EPA is limited (approximately 8%) and conversion to DHA is extremely low (<0.1%). In women fractional conversion to DHA appears to be greater (9%), which may partly be a result of a lower rate of utilisation of alphaLNA for beta-oxidation in women. However, up-regulation of the conversion of EPA to DHA has also been suggested, as a result of the actions of oestrogen on Delta6-desaturase, and may be of particular importance in maintaining adequate provision of DHA in pregnancy. The effect of oestrogen on DHA concentration in pregnant and lactating women awaits confirmation.