Human neutrophils, when exposed to soluble stimuli, aggregate, release oxygenated products of arachidonic acid and generate active oxygen species. Sphingolipid-derived products such as sphingosine and lysosphingolipids have been shown to exert selective actions on a variety of cell types, including neutrophils. Therefore, to determine the structural basis for selective inhibition of neutrophil responses by naturally occurring sphingolipids, seven compounds were prepared by total organic synthesis, and their impact on neutrophils in suspension has been studied. The compounds synthesized included sphingosine, psychosine, lactosyl lysosphingolipid, globotriaosyl (Gb3) lysosphingolipid, galactosyl cerebroside, lactosyl ceramide and Gb3 ceramide. The neutrophil responses studied were aggregation, leukotriene generation and superoxide anion production. When exposed to non-cytotoxic levels of the synthetic compounds, as monitored by exclusion of Trypan Blue, none of the synthetic sphingolipids inhibited A23187-induced aggregation of neutrophils. Only lactosyl lysosphingolipid, at a concentration of 1 microM, significantly inhibited aggregation induced by fMetLeuPhe; the other compounds in this series including sphingosine were without effect at equal molar concentrations (1 microM). Aggregation induced by phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) (0.1 microM) was significantly blocked by only two of the synthetic sphingolipids (1 microM). At concentrations below 1 microM, these inhibitory actions were not evident, nor was it possible to assign a structure-activity relationship for this series of compounds. None of the synthetic sphingolipids effectively inhibited the generation of superoxide anions induced by PMA. In addition, neither synthetic sphingosine nor psychosine affected either the formation or metabolism of leukotriene B4. Taken together, the results provide further evidence that sphingolipids, when added to intact cells, are not potent selective inhibitors of functional responses of human neutrophils.