Free fatty acids are considered to be the major energy source for the myocardium. To investigate the metabolic fate of this substrate in humans, 24 subjects underwent coronary sinus and arterial catheterization. 13 subjects were healthy volunteers and 11 subjects had symptoms of ischemic heart disease. [1-14C]oleate or [1-14C]palmitate bound to albumin was infused at a constant rate of 25 microCi/h. Oxidation was determined by measuring the 14CO2 production. The data demonstrated that a high percentage (84 +/- 17%) of the palmitate and oleate extracted by the myocardium underwent rapid oxidation. A highly significant correlation was present between the arterial level and the amount oxidized (r = 0.82, P less than 0.001 for palmitate; r = 0.77, P less than 0.001 for oleate). The isotope extraction ratio was greater than the chemical extraction ratio. This difference of 6 +/- 2 nmol/ml of blood in the young normal subjects was significantly less than the 12 +/- 4 nmol/ml observed in the ischemic heart disease patients (P less than 0.001).