Comparison of isolated human neutrophils and lymphocytes in short-term tissue culture revealed marked differences in their rates of lipid biosynthesis. Ficoll-Hypaque gradients were used to separate lymphocytes and neutrophils from the blood of normal subjects. Neutrophils incorporated more palmitate into cell lipids (151.0 +/- 16.6 nmole/hr/10(8) cells) than lymphocytes (41.6 +/- 4.1). By contrast, the lymphocytes oxidized more palmitate (8.3 +/- 0.5 nmole/hr/10(8) cells) as compared to neutrophils (1.1 +/- 0.1). The greater fatty acid uptake by the neutrophils was due to a sixfold greater rate of incoporation of palmitate into their triglyceride fraction. Triglyceride synthesis by neutrophils increased as the molar ratio of free fatty acid to albumin was raised, whereas incorporation into phospholipids remained relatively constant; there was preferential labeling of neutrophil triglycerides throughout the physiologic range. Studies using linoleate and oleate gave similar results. The distribution of radioactivity into various phospholipids determined by thin-layer chromatography was similar for the two cell types. When labeled glucose was used as a substrate to measure incorporation primarily into the glycerol backbone of the cell lipids, neutrophils incorporated more radioactivity into total lipids and triglycerides than lymphocytes. These results indicate that neutrophils take up much more fatty acid than lymphocytes primarily because they synthesize much larger quantities of triglycerides, a storage form. Since cellular triglycerides may act as a source of fatty acid for lecithin synthesis during phagocytosis, the greater rate of fatty acid incorporation in the neutrophil may reflect a metabolic pattern that permits efficient phagocytosis.