There is evidence suggesting that fluid shear stress activates phospholipid turnover in endothelial cells, but it is not clear which phospholipids are involved in the transduction of the flow signal. Cultured human umbilical-vein endothelial cells were prelabeled with [14C]-arachidonic acid and subjected to laminar shear stresses of 0.4, 1.4 and 22 dyn/cm2 for times up to 30 min, after which the distribution of the radioactivity in the phospholipids was determined. We observed decreases in labeled phosphatidylinositol, phosphatidylethanolamine and phosphatidic acid at 10-30 s, and increases in labeled diacylglycerol (DG) and free arachidonate, as well as a simultaneous elevation in inositol 1,4,5-triphosphate (IP3) levels. A second peak in IP3 levels was observed 10 min after the onset of shear. This is in contrast with agonist-stimulated endothelial cells, where IP3 levels go back to initial values within a few minutes after stimulation. The flow-induced IP3 response was the same in the presence or absence of ATP and serum in the perfusing medium. These results are consistent with the activation of phospholipase C, phospholipase A2 and DG lipase by shear stress. This suggests that several phospholipids are involved in the production of free arachidonic acid and DG, which are likely to be important mediators of the shear stress signal. In addition, flow may lead to a chronic stimulation of endothelial-cell metabolism.