Previous studies in our laboratory have shown that the principal pathway of phosphatidylcholine (PtdCho) degradation in cultured mouse N1E-115 neuroblastoma, C6 rat glioma, primary rat brain glia and human fibroblasts is PtdCho----lysophosphatidylcholine (lysoPtdCho)----glycerophosphocholine (GroPCho)----glycerophosphate plus choline (Morash, S.C. et al. (1988) Biochim. Biophys. Acta 961, 194-202). GroPCho is the first quantitatively major degradation product in this pathway, and could be formed by phospholipases A1 or A2, followed by lysophospholipase, or by a co-ordinated attack releasing both fatty acids by phospholipase B. The quality and quantities of lysoPtdCho present in cells reflect the nature of the initial hydrolysis step (A1 or A2), specificities of the lysophospholipases, and activities of acyltransferases that form PtdCho from lysoPtdCho. The present study was undertaken to elucidate the relative importance of these pathways by examining the fate of exogenous 1-acyl and 2-acyl-lysoPtdCho incubated with N1E-115 and C6 cells in culture. By fatty acid composition, endogenous lysoPtdCho was found to be mainly 1-acyl in both cell types based on a predominance of saturated acyl species; this suggested either preferential further deacylation or reacylation of 2-acyl-lysoPtdCho, or that 2-acyl-lysoPtdCho was not formed. Exogenous 1- and 2-acyl-lysoPtdCho specifically radiolabelled with choline and/or fatty acid were incubated either singly or as equimolar mixtures with cells. Cell association was rapid and not reversible by washing and both species were taken up at similar rates. The 2-acyl species was acylated to PtdCho faster than the 1-acyl species in both cell lines. Acylation of both lyso species was higher in C6 compared to N1E-115 cells. Hydrolysis of lysoPtdCho to GroPCho was higher in N1E-115 cells and with 1-acyl-lysoPtdCho. Transacylation between two molecules of lysoPtdCho was a minor pathway. These results document the variety and relative importance of reactions of lysoPtdCho metabolism; under similar conditions, 1- and 2-acyl-lysoPtdCho are handled differently. Both species turn over actively, but only the 1-acyl species accumulates while 2-acyl-lysoPtdCho is likely to be reacylated to form PtdCho.