The metabolism of the calcium mobilizing inositol-1,4,5-trisphosphate (IP3) isomer was studied in myo-[3H]inositol labeled, chemoattractant-stimulated human polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMNs), and in PMN lysates. It was determined that 1,4,5-IP3 is metabolized in vitro by two distinct pathways: 1) by sequential dephosphorylation to 1,4-IP2, 4-IP1, and inositol or 2) by ATP dependent conversion to 1,3,4,5-IP4, followed by dephosphorylation to form 1,3,4-IP3, 3,4-IP2, 3-IP1, and inositol. In PMNs stimulated with 0.1 microM N-formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (fMet-Leu-Phe), 1,4-IP2, 1,4,5-IP3, and IP4, were elevated by 5 s; whereas production of 1,3,4-IP3, 3,4-IP2, and IP1 occurred only after an initial lag (approximately 15 s). The predominant IP1 isomer formed in fMet-Leu-Phe-stimulated cells was 4-IP1. Production of 1,3,4-IP3 and 3,4-IP2 was markedly reduced (17 and 35% of control, respectively) in fMet-Leu-Phe-stimulated cells pretreated to prevent a rise in intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i). PMNs were also stimulated with leukotriene B4 (LTB4) since this agent is a poor activator of the respiratory burst compared to fMet-Leu-Phe. Peak levels (5 s) of 1,4,5-IP3 were equivalent after stimulation with 0.1 microM fMet-Leu-Phe versus 0.1 microM LTB4 (320 +/- 38% versus 378 +/- 38% of control values, respectively; n = 5); however, at 30 s, 1,4,5-IP3 remained elevated only in fMet-Leu-Phe-stimulated cells. Similarly, elevation of [Ca2+]i was more prolonged in response to 0.1 microM fMet-Leu-Phe (greater than 3 min) versus LTB4 (1 min). Thus, signal transduction in PMNs may be modulated by both the duration of the initial 1,4,5-IP3 signal and by the metabolic pathway(s) utilized to convert this IP3 isomer to other, potentially active inositol phosphate products.