Propionibacterium acnes is the predominant microbial resident within the pilosebaceous follicles of sebum-rich areas of human skin. This study investigated the effects of known hydrophobic components of sebum on the physiology and nutrition of this microorganism, grown anaerobically at 33 degrees C, under defined conditions using continuous culture techniques. The medium used was chemically defined, comprising eight amino acids, with glucose as the main carbon energy source, and the culture pH was maintained at 5.6. The range of sebum lipids assayed was based on the C18 monounsaturated fatty acid 9-cis-octadecenoic acid (oleic acid). Stock micronized solutions were aseptically pulsed into continuous cultures in the presence and absence of glucose, and nutritional effects monitored. None of the lipid substrates significantly affected P. acnes growth either in terms of maximum specific growth rate (mu max) or final culture biomass yield. Glycerol (3 mg ml-1) was found to be a poor carbon/energy source in comparison to glucose. Bacterial cells did, however, adhere with varying degrees, to the different lipid species, with maximum adherence occurring with the free fatty acid. This observation was confirmed by preliminary uptake experiments using [14C]oleic acid. The interactive site for cell adherence may be the lipid-fibrillar layer associated with the cell surface of P. acnes, as discerned in electron microscopical studies. The findings of this investigation suggest that one function of the P. acnes lipase may be to aid colonization within the pilosebaceous follicle, by promoting cell adherence to components such as oleic acid.