Interleukin-1 (IL-1) impairs insulin secretion from pancreatic islets and may contribute to the pathogenesis of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. IL-1 increases islet expression of nitric oxide (NO) synthase, and the resultant overproduction of NO participates in inhibition of insulin secretion because NO synthase inhibitors, e.g. NG-monomethyl-arginine (NMMA), prevent this inhibition. While exploring effects of IL-1 on islet arachidonic acid metabolism, we found that IL-1 increases islet production of the 12-lipoxygenase product 12-hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acid 12-(HETE). This effect requires NO production and is prevented by NMMA. Exploration of the mechanism of this effect indicates that it involves increased availabilty of the substrate arachidonic acid rather than enhanced expression of 12-lipoxygenase. Evidence supporting this conclusion includes the facts that IL-1 does not increase islet 12-lipoxygenase protein or mRNA levels and does not enhance islet conversion of exogenous arachidonate to 12-HETE. Mass spectrometric stereochemical analyses nonetheless indicate that 12-HETE produced by IL-1-treated islets consists only of the S-enantiomer and thus arises from enzyme action. IL-1 does enhance release of nonesterified arachidonate from islets, as measured by isotope dilution mass spectrometry, and this effect is suppressed by NMMA and mimicked by the NO-releasing compound 3-morpholinosydnonimine. Although IL-1 increases neither islet phospholipase A2 (PLA2) activities nor mRNA levels for cytosolic or secretory PLA2, a suicide substrate which inhibits an islet Ca2+-independent PLA2 prevents enhancement of islet arachidonate release by IL-1. IL-1 also impairs esterification of [3H8] arachidonate into islet phospholipids, and this effect is prevented by NMMA and mimicked by the mitochondrial ATP-synthase inhibitor oligomycin. Experiments with exogenous substrates indicate that NMMA does not inhibit and that the NO-releasing compound does not activate islet 12-lipoxygenase or PLA2 activities. These results indicate that a novel action of NO is to increase levels of nonesterified arachidonic acid in islets.