Previous studies have shown that exogenous free n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) can prevent tachyarrhythmias caused by specific agents in isolated cardiac myocytes. However, the question as to whether incorporation of the n-3 PUFA into membrane phospholipids has the same immediate protective effects remained to be answered. To answer this question, we increased the content of n-3 PUFA in the phospholipids of cultured neonatal rat myocytes by growing them 2-3 d in a culture to which eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) or docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in 15 microM concentration was added. Analysis of the fatty acid composition of membrane phospholipids revealed a significantly higher level of EPA and DHA (from 0.2 to 7.6% and from 1.2 to 6.5%) in cells supplemented with EPA or DHA, respectively. The responses of the myocytes grown in normal media or in media enriched with the PUFA to arrhythmogenic agents were examined after free fatty acids were removed from the medium and the cells. The arrhythmogenic agents used were the beta-adrenergic agonist isoproterenol or an elevated extracellular concentration of calcium. The results showed that there was no significant difference in the induction of tachyarrhythmias by isoproterenol or by elevated [Ca2+]o in cells grown in media enriched with PUFA, as compared with cells grown in normal media in the absence of the free PUFA. Under the conditions of this study, only the unesterified PUFA were able to protect the cardiomyocytes against induced arrhythmias. There was no antiarrhythmic effect due to an increased fraction of EPA or DHA in membrane phospholipids.