Infants fed formulas devoid of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCP) exhibit low plasma LCP concentrations and have poorer retinal and neurologic development in comparison with their human milk-fed counterparts. It is not known whether the low plasma LCP concentrations result from an impaired biosynthetic capacity, a high need or a low dietary intake. With stable isotope technology and high sensitivity tracer detection using gas chromatography-isotope ratio mass spectrometry we measured the conversion of [13C]linoleic acid (C18:2n-6) and [13C]linolenic acid (C18:3n-3) into their longer chain derivatives in five 1-mo-old formula-fed preterm infants (birth weight 1.17 +/- 0.12.kg and gestational age 28.4 +/- 1.3 wk). Carbon-13-labeled linoleic acid and inolenic were mixed with the formula and administered continuously for 48 h. Both tracers were rapidly incorporated in plasma phospholipids, and their metabolic products including arachidonic acid (C20:4n-6) and docosahexaenoic acid (C22:6n-3) became highly enriched. We demonstrate that the preterm infant is capable of synthesizing LCP from their 18-carbon precursors, and our data do not support the hypothesis that a reduced delta 6 desaturation is a main factor leading to low arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid levels.