The metabolism of exogenous [3H]diacylglycerols by intact human platelets was studied in order to examine: the metabolic fate of these second messengers in an intact cell, the effect of diacylglycerol kinase and diacylglycerol lipase inhibitors on this metabolism, the effect of agonist stimulation on metabolism, and the dependence of metabolism on diacylglycerol chain length. When 2.5 microM [3H]dioctanoylglycerol (diC8) was added to 10(9) platelets it was rapidly metabolized; 80% was converted to various products in 2.5 min. Initially, 40% was recovered as 3H-labeled phospholipid (predominantly phosphatidic acid) reflecting the action of diacylglycerol kinase, 20% was recovered as [3H]glycerol due to the action of diacylglycerol and monoacylglycerol lipases, and small amounts were recovered as triacylglycerol and monoacylglycerol. Thrombin stimulation of platelets did not affect the rate or pathway of metabolism. Pretreatment of platelets with the diacylglycerol kinase inhibitors, diC8ethyleneglycol or 1-monooleoylglycerol, inhibited 3H-labeled phospholipid production 47% and 75%, respectively, and resulted in a longer lived diC8 signal. The diacylglycerol lipase inhibitor, RHC 80267, inhibited the production of water-soluble metabolites 75%. Despite inhibition of the lipase, the overall metabolism of exogenous [3H]diC8 occurred at a similar rate as in control platelets due to an increased flux towards phospholipid. The ability of exogenous diacylglycerols to be metabolized by diacylglycerol kinase correlated well with their ability to activate protein kinase C in platelets. [3H]Dibutyroylglycerol, didodecanoylglycerol, and ditetradecanoylglycerol, were not metabolized by this route. These diacylglycerols were still metabolized via the lipase pathway. The results indicate that platelets possess potent attenuation systems to defend against the accumulation of diacylglycerol second messengers, and that the primary metabolic fate of cell-permeable, exogenous diacylglycerols is conversion to phosphatidic acid.