The metabolism and synthesis of an important mycobacterial lipid component, phosphatidylinositol (PI), and its metabolites, was studied in Mycobacterium smegmatis and M. smegmatis subcellular fractions. Little is known about the synthesis of PI in prokaryotic cells. Only a cell wall fraction (P60) in M. smegmatis was shown to possess PI synthase activity. Product was identified as PI by migration on TLC, treatment with phospholipase C and ion exchange chromatography. PI was the only major product (92.3%) when both cells and P60 fraction were labeled with [3H]inositol. Also, a neutral lipid inositol-containing product (4.1% of the total label) was identified in the P60 preparations. Strangely, PI synthase substrates, CDP-dipalmitoyl-DAG and CDP-NBD-DAG, added to the assay did not stimulate [3H]PI and NBD-PI yield by M. smegmatis. At the same time, addition of both substrates to rat liver and Saccharomyces cerevisiae PI synthase assays resulted in an increase in the product yield. Upon addition of CHAPS to the mycobacterial PI synthase assay, both substrates were utilized in a dose-dependent manner for the synthesis of NBD-PI and [3H]PI. These results demonstrate a strict substrate specificity of mycobacterial PI synthase toward endogenous substrates. K(m) of the enzyme toward inositol was shown to be 25 microM; Mg2+ stimulated the enzyme to a greater degree than Mn2+. Structural analogs of myo-inositol, epi-inositol and scyllo-inositol and Zn2+ were shown to be more potent inhibitors of mycobacterial PI synthase than of mammalian analogs. Lack of sequence homology with mammalian PI synthases, different kinetic characteristics, existence of selective inhibitors and an important physiological role in mycobacteria, suggest that PI synthase may be a good potential target for antituberculosis therapy.