Linolenic acid (C18:3) is the main endogenous unsaturated fatty acid of thylakoid membrane lipids, and seems in its free form to exert significant effects on the structure and function of photosynthetic membranes. In this investigation the effect of linolenic acid was studied at various pH values on the electron flow rate in isolated spinach chloroplasts and related to deltapH, the proton pump and the pH of the inner thylakoid space (pHi). The deltapH and pHi were estimated from the extent of the fluorescence quenching of 9-aminoacridine. Linolenic acid caused a shift (approximately one unit) of the pH optimum for electron flow toward acidity in the following systems: (a) photosystems II + I (from H2O to NADP+ or to 2,6-dichlorophenolindophenol) coupled or non-coupled; (b) photosystem II (from H2O to 2,6-dichlorophenolindophenol in the presence of dibromothymoquinone). In photosystem I conditions (phenazine methosulphate), the deltapH of the control increased as a function of external pHo with a maximum around pH 8.8. When linolenic acid was added, the deltapH dropped, but its optimum was shifted toward more acidic pHo. The same phenomena were also observed in photosytems II + I (from H2O to ferricyanide) and in photosystem II conditions (from H2O to ferricyanide in the presence of dibromothymoquinone). However, the deltapH was smaller and the sensitivity of the proton gradient toward linolenic acid was eventually higher than for photosystem I electron flow activity. The proton pump which might be considered as a measure of the internal buffering capacity of thylakoids was optimum at pHo, 6.7 in the controls. An addition of linolenic acid diminished the proton pump and shifted its optimum toward higher pHo. As a consequence, pHi increased when pHo was raised. At the optimal pHo 8.6 to 9, pHi were 5 to 5.5. Additions of increasing concentrations of linolenic acid displaced the curves toward higher pHi. A decrease of pHo was therefore required to maintain the pHi in the range of 5-5.5 for maximum electron flow. In conclusion, the electron flow activity seems to be delicately controlled by the proton pump (buffer capacity), deltapH, pHi and pHo. Fatty acids damage the membrane integrity in such a way that the subtile equilibrium between the factors is disturbed.