Human cytosolic phospholipase A2 (cPLA2) is an 85-kDa protein which displays a preference for arachidonoyl phospholipids as substrates. This substrate preference and the assay characteristics of the enzyme are quite different from those of the smaller, more well-studied extracellular PLA2s. We now report the development of a nonradioactive, spectrophotometric, microtiterplate assay for human cPLA2 using a novel synthetic thio-phospholipid analog as a substrate. This substrate is a phosphatidylcholine derivative with an arachidonoylthioester in the sn-2 position and an alkyl-ether in the sn-1 position. The use of an sn-1 alkyl-ether in the substrate ensures that the assay will only measure PLA2 activity and will not be complicated by the metabolism of the lysophospholipid product by the enzyme's lysophospholipase activity. cPLA2 is assayed at pH 7.4 and 37 degrees C with a mixed micellar substrate consisting of 2 mM thio-phospholipid and 4 mM Triton X-100 in 30% glycerol. Under these conditions, the assay is fairly linear for over 1 h.