Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPAR alpha, beta, and gamma) are nuclear hormone receptors that play critical roles in regulating lipid metabolism. It is well established that PPARs are the targets for the hypolipidemic synthetic compounds known as peroxisome proliferators, and it has been proposed that various long-chain fatty acids and metabolites of arachidonic acid serve as the physiological ligands that activate these receptors in vivo. However, a persistent problem is that reported values of the equilibrium dissociation constants (Kds) of complexes of PPARs with these ligands are in the micromolar range, at least an order of magnitude higher than the physiological concentrations of the ligands. Thus, the identity of the endogenous ligands for PPAR remains unclear. Here we report on a fluorescence-based method for investigating the interactions of PPAR with ligands. It is shown that the synthetic fluorescent long-chain fatty acid trans-parinaric acid binds to PPARalpha with high affinity and can be used as a probe to monitor protein-ligand interactions by the receptor. Measurements of Kds characterizing the interactions of PPARalpha with various ligands revealed that PPARalpha interacts with unsaturated C:18 fatty acids, with arachidonic acid, and with the leukotriene LTB4 with affinities in the nanomolar range. These data demonstrate the utility of the optical method in examining the ligand-selectivity of PPARs, and resolve a long-standing uncertainty in understanding how the activities of these receptors are regulated in vivo.