The effect of mastoparan, Ile-Asn-Leu-Lys-Ala-Leu-Ala-Ala-Leu-Ala-Lys-Lys-Ile-LeuNH2, and related peptides on the release of arachidonic acid from egg yolk lecithin liposomes, rat peritoneal mast cells, and cultured human fibroblasts was studied. In unsonicated liposomes, labeled with 1-stearoyl-2[1-14C]arachidonyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine, 5 X 10(-5) M mastoparan caused a 12-, 15-, and 50-fold increase in the production of arachidonic acid catalyzed by phospholipase A2 from bee venom, eastern diamondback rattlesnake and porcine pancreas, respectively. The stimulant effect of mastoparan and related peptides was dose-dependent and further enhanced by sonication of liposomes. In contrast, melittin, while stimulating the production of arachidonic acid by phospholipase from bee venom, was inactive with the rattlesnake and pancreatic enzymes. Melittin was also only weakly active with liposomes containing stearic acid in place of arachidonic acid. Like melittin, mastoparans stimulated phospholipase activity in tissue homogenates and caused a dose-dependent release of arachidonic acid from rat peritoneal mast cells and cultured human fibroblasts prelabeled with [14C]arachidonic acid. The heptapeptide fragments mastoparan 1-7 and mastoparan 8-14, and succinylated mastoparan were ineffective. The results suggest that mastoparan and related peptides in insect venoms act, at least in part, by stimulating phospholipase activity.