The uptake of free fatty acids has previously been shown to affect the capping of lymphocytes, and there is evidence that different types of fatty acids may partition into separate lipid domains in cell surface membranes. In studies of gel-filtered human platelets, we found that cis-unsaturated fatty acids (1–35 microM) inhibited platelet shape change, aggregation, and secretion of 5-hydroxytryptamine induced by thrombin, adenosine diphosphate (ADP), collagen, U46619 (a thromboxane A2 analog), or plant lectins, but not that induced by A23187, a calcium ionophore. Trans-unsaturated and saturated fatty acids had little or no inhibitory effect. The inhibitory effects of cis-unsaturated fatty acids were not affected by inhibition of adenylate cyclase or cyclooxygenase. 14C-labeled fatty acids were taken up into platelet lipids. The maximum platelet-inhibitory effect of cis-unsaturated fatty acids was seen when over 90% of the platelet label was still in the form of free fatty acids. Platelet inhibition could be reversed by washing the platelets by gel filtration. Binding of platelet agonists to the platelet was not inhibited by the fatty acids. Cis-unsaturated fatty acids, but not trans-unsaturated or saturated fatty acids, decreased fluorescence polarization of platelets or isolated platelet membranes monitored with 1,6-diphenyl- 1,3,5-hexatriene. The potency of the fatty acids as inhibitors of platelet aggregation was inversely correlated with their melting points. These data suggest that inhibition of receptor-mediated platelet responses by cis-unsaturated fatty acids results from perturbation of the platelet membrane in specific lipid domains.