The effects of dietary lipids on the fatty acid composition, activation and proliferation of lymphocytes were investigated. Weanling male Wistar rats were fed for 8 weeks on one of two low-fat diets which contained 50 g lipid/kg, or one of two high-fat diets containing 200 g lipid/kg, from either coconut oil or soyabean oil. The fatty acid composition of phospholipids from splenocyte membranes was affected by dietary lipid manipulation, and these differences influenced lymphocyte functions. Increased levels of linoleic acid in spleen lymphocytes correlated negatively with interleukin-2 receptor α-chain expression determined either by measuring the mean fluorescence or by the proportion of cells staining positive for CD25, and with the cell proliferation index. However, we found a positive correlation between interleukin-2 receptor α-chain expression determined by measuring the mean fluorescence and the cell proliferation index with the oleic acid concentration of spleen lymphocytes. Since phospholipid hydrolysis occurs early in lymphocyte activation, immunosuppressive effects induced by polyunsaturated fatty acids, described in the literature, could be due to an increase of linoleic acid or a decrease of oleic acid affecting many components of plasma-membrane-associated events involved in lymphocyte activation.