Insulin secretion by pancreatic islet β-cells is impaired in diabetes mellitus, and normal β-cells are enriched in phospholipids with arachidonate as sn-2 substituent. Such molecules may play structural roles in exocytotic membrane fusion or serve as substrates for phospholipases activated by insulin secretagogues. INS-1 insulinoma cells respond to secretagogues and permit the study of effects of culture with free fatty acids on phospholipid composition and secretion. INS-1 cell glycerophosphocholine (GPC) and glycerophosphoethanolamine (GPE) lipids are demonstrated here by electrospray ionization mass spectrometry to contain a lower fraction of molecules with arachidonate and a higher fraction with oleate as sn-2 substituent than native islets. Palmitic acid supplementation induces little change in these INS-1 cell lipids, but supplementation with linoleate or arachidonate induces a large rise in the fraction of INS-1 cell GPC species with polyunsaturated sn-2 substituents and a fall in oleate-containing species to yield a GPC profile similar to native islets. The fraction of GPE lipids comprised of plasmenylethanolamine species with polyunsaturated sn-2 substituents in early-passage INS-1 cells is similar to that of islets, but declines on serial passage. Such molecules might participate in exocytotic membrane fusion, and late-passage INS-1 cells have reduced insulin secretory responses. Arachidonate supplementation induces a rise in the fraction of INS-1 cell GPE lipids with polyunsaturated sn-2 substituents and partially restores responses to insulin secretagogues by late-passage INS-1 cells, but does not further amplify secretion by early-passage cells. Effects of extracellular free fatty acids on β-cell phospholipid composition and secretory responses could be involved in changes in β-cell function during the period of hyper-free fatty acidemia that precedes diabetes mellitus. © 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.