The purpose of this study was to assess changes in the degree of fatty acid unsaturation in rat liver after partial hepatectomy. This is the first study in which liver fatty acid unsaturation has been analyzed over a long period of regeneration until day 28 after operation. The relationship between changes in unsaturation and fatty acid composition in the regenerating liver were also investigated in this study. Proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy revealed significantly elevated levels of unsaturation with a maximum on day 5 after partial hepatectomy, compared with untreated controls (11.72+/-0.55 vs. 11.05+/-0.26%, P < 0.05). No significant changes in unsaturation were found in day 1 regenerating liver, which is rich in absolute amounts of fatty acids. Based on gas-liquid chromatography, the relative amounts of oleic acid (18:1n-9) and linoleic acid (LA; 18:2n-6) were increased, while polyunsaturated fatty acids such as arachidonic acid (20:4n-6) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22:6n-3) were decreased on day 1. On the other hand, on day 5 of regeneration, while most fatty acids were returning to their preoperative control levels, only DHA was higher than the control value (7.69+/-0.58 vs. 5.57+/-0.37%, P < 0.001). The high levels of unsaturation on day 5 were found to be partly due to the increase in DHA. The findings suggest that some significant signals are transmitted during the regeneration process owing to alterations in the membrane structure by the high levels of fatty acid unsaturation and the increase in DHA levels on day 5 after partial hepatectomy.