The n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) appear to have antiinflammatory properties that can be partly explained by their biological activity on leukocytes. Since leukocyte emigration is an essential component of the inflammatory response, we have examined the effects of the n-3 PUFA (eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids) on neutrophil random and chemotactic movement. Preexposure of neutrophils for 15-30 min to 1-10 micrograms/ml PUFA reduced the random and chemotactic migration to both FMLP- and fungi-activated complement. The inhibitory effect diminished with increasing saturation and carbon chain length, and methylation abolished this activity. Arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids were the most active fatty acids. The PUFA concentration required to inhibit migration was dependent on cell number, suggesting that the fatty acid effects on leukocyte migration in vivo may be governed by the stage of the inflammatory response. It was concluded that the PUFA rather than their metabolites were responsible for the inhibition since: (a) antioxidants did not prevent the PUFA-induced migration inhibition and the hydroxylated intermediates were less active, and (b) inhibitors of the cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase pathways were without effect. Inhibitors of protein kinases and calmodulin-dependent enzyme system did not prevent the PUFA-induced migration inhibition, which was also independent of phospholipase D-catalyzed hydrolysis of phospholipids. It is also shown that PUFA decrease the FMLP-induced Ca2+ mobilization.