In a study of human milk obtained in the first month of lactation, lipase and esterase activity were assayed. Bile salt-stimulated lipase (BSSL) and bile salt-stimulated esterase (BSSE) activities in colostrum were similar to corresponding enzyme activities in transitional milk and in mature milk. BSSL and BSSE were significantly (P less than 0.001) correlated to one another, which suggests that lipase and esterase activities in milk are due to the same enzyme. When milk was allowed to stand at room temperature, in a refrigerator, or subjected to freezing and thawing, wide fluctuations were observed in lipase and esterase activities, but there was no systematic tendency for enzyme activity to increase or decrease. Heating milk to various temperatures between 40-55 degrees C resulted in progressive loss of enzyme activity. The activation energy for the process which inactivates the enzyme was found by linear regression to the Arrhenius plot to be 2 X 10(5) J X mole-1. Our findings suggest that lipase and esterase activity in human milk which is donated to hospitals and stored frozen can make a valuable contribution to fat digestion in the newborn infant, but pasteurization destroys the enzyme.