In order to study the role played by the fetoplacental unit in providing the human fetus with arachidonic acid, delta 5- and delta 6-desaturase activities were studied in microsomes from human fetal liver and placenta after 18 and 22 weeks of gestation. We evidenced for the first time delta 5- and delta 6-desaturase activities in fetal liver microsomes. As in adult liver, delta 6-desaturation is the rate-limiting step of arachidonic acid synthesis. No activity was found in the placenta. Arachidonic acid concentrations were higher in fetal serum than in maternal serum while the opposite was observed for linoleic acid. The fetal liver microsomal content in arachidonic acid was low. Taken together the data suggest that arachidonic acid is supplied to the fetus through a preferential transfer across the placenta.