Isoflurane is an inhalational general anesthetic widely used in surgical operations as a racemic mixture of its two optical isomers. The recent availability of pure enantiomers of isoflurane has encouraged their use in experimental studies, and stereoselective effects have now been observed on anesthetic-sensitive neuronal ion channels. Although it has been assumed that such chiral effects demonstrate direct interactions with proteins, it is possible that they could be due to stereoselective interactions with chiral membrane lipids. We have determined the partition coefficients of the two optical isomers of isoflurane between lipid bilayers and water, using racemic isoflurane and gas chromatography with a chiral column. For lipid bilayers of phosphatidylcholine (PC) and 4 mol% phosphatidic acid (PA), both with and without cholesterol (CHOL), we found equal partitioning of the isoflurane optical isomers. The ratios of the S(+) to R(-) isoflurane partition coefficients were (mean +/- SEM): 1.018 +/- 0.010 for bilayers of PC/CHOL/PA (mole ratios 56:40:4) and 1.011 +/- 0.002 for bilayers of PC/PA (mole ratio 96:4). Molar partition coefficients for racemic isoflurane were 49 +/- 4 and 165 +/- 10, respectively. These findings support the view that the stereoselective effects on ion channels observed with isoflurane are due to direct actions on proteins rather than lipids.