Mouse bone marrow macrophages were obtained by cultivation in serum-free medium. Addition of specific fatty acids to the medium leads to macrophage populations which differ in their fatty acid composition. The fatty acid composition of the cellular membranes directly modulates functional abilities of the macrophages such as the generation of superoxide anion and phospholipase A2 activity in response to phorbol ester and zymosan. Both capacities were lowest in macrophages cultured serum-free without lipids. Incorporation of unsaturated fatty acids into macrophage phospholipids leads to an increase of O2- production as measured by lucigenin-dependent chemiluminescence and to an increased phospholipase A2 activity after challenge with phorbol ester or zymosan.