The effects of growth temperature on the fatty acid compositions of the phosphatidylcholine (PC), phosphatidylethanolamine (PE), and total lipid (TL) fractions of the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans were investigated. A reduction in growth temperature from 25 to 15 degrees C caused the proportions of eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) to increase from 23.6 to 32.5% in the PC, from 7.4 to 10.8% in the PE, and from 12.9 to 19.9% in the TL fractions. Conversely, the levels of dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (20:3n-6) and arachidonic acid (20:4n-6) in these phospholipid fractions and the TL fraction both decreased with decreasing growth temperature. Analysis of the positional distribution of fatty acids in the PC fraction revealed that the change in the composition of C20 polyunsaturated fatty acid was obvious in position sn-2. Lowering the growth temperature induced an increase in the level of the diacyl subclass of PE from 58% at 25 degrees C to 71% at 15 degrees C, with a concomitant decrease in the levels of the alkylacyl and alkenylacyl subclass of PE of C. elegans. These changes observed in the phospholipids of C. elegans might be one mechanism for adaptation to low temperature.