Human leukocyte-derived lipoxin A (LXA; 5S,-6R,15S-trihydroxy-7,9,13-trans-11-cis-eicosatetraenoic acid) inhibits the cytotoxic activity of human natural killer (NK) cells. LXA and three of its isomers were prepared by total organic synthesis and assayed for activity with human NK cells. Dose-response studies showed that biologically derived LXA and synthetic LXA were equally effective in inhibiting NK cell cytotoxicity. 6S-LXA, with its 6S-OH group in an (S) configuration, proved to be approximately half as potent as LXA. In contrast, 6S-11-trans-LXA and 11-trans-LXA displayed virtually no inhibitory activities. The methyl esters of both LXA and 6S-LXA proved to be more potent than their corresponding free acids. Thus, LXA inhibition of NK cells displays clear-cut stereochemistry. In the absence of putative inhibitors, NK cells bind to their targets to form conjugates. This event is followed by polarization of the NK Golgi apparatus, which moves towards the plasma membrane that is in contact with the target cell. However, in the presence of either the methyl ester or free acid of LXA, the Golgi apparati of NK cells bound to their targets were randomly oriented. In contrast, neither 6S-11-trans-LXA nor the potent NK inhibitor prostaglandin E2 affected the polarization. Furthermore, although prostaglandin E2 resulted in a decrease in NK-target cell binding efficiency, LXA and its isomers failed to affect conjugate formation. Together these results indicate that LXA-induced inhibition of NK cytotoxicity does not act on NK cell binding but may block cytotoxicity by disrupting "signals" involved in the specific orientation of the Golgi. Thus, this latter event may appear to be important in cytotoxicity.