Phosphatidylcholine (PC) hydrolysis has been shown to occur in hormone-stimulated cells and represents a potential metabolic source, in addition to phosphoinositides, for the generation of diradylglycerols (DG). We performed studies in order to quantify the importance of this pathway in DG formation. We incubated murine peritoneal macrophages with platelet-activating factor (PAF), ionomycin, phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) or no stimulus in a series of timed incubations ranging from 15 s to 20 min. We quantified the profiles of the molecular species in the accumulated DG after extraction, specific radiolabelling to give [32P]phosphatidic acid by DG kinase, and conversion to the dimethyl derivative. We used two independent methods for molecular species analysis: (1) reversed-phase h.p.l.c. separation with in-line beta-radiation detection of peaks, and (2) an argentation-t.l.c. separation with scintillation counting of bands. Our results showed a clearly biphasic sequence in the composition of accumulated DG. The molecular species composition of early DG (up to 1 min stimulation time) was very similar to that of unstimulated DG, whereas the proportions of the species present in later DG were substantially altered. In the same experiments, we extracted native phospholipids from unstimulated macrophages, separated phosphatidylinositol (PI), PC, phosphatidylethanolamine (PE) and phosphatidylserine (PS), converted them to the corresponding DGs by using phospholipase C, and determined their molecular species compositions as above. In comparison with the diradyl compositions of stimulated DG, the diradyl composition of PI closely matched that of early DG, the differences between the PC and PI compositions matched the differences between early and late DG very closely, and the compositions of PE and PS were unique and unrelated. We quantified these relationships more precisely by multilinear regression analysis to calculate the theoretical best mix of five molecular species compositions (PI, PC, PE, PS and unstimulated DG) that would most closely replicate the early and late accumulated DG compositions. We found that by both h.p.l.c. and t.l.c. analyses, 15-30% (PAF) or 25-50% (ionomycin and PMA) of the later DG could be accounted for by PC hydrolysis. These results represent quantifications of phospholipid class contributions to stimulated DG formation, and demonstrate the potential importance of PC hydrolysis in phagocytic leucocytes.