Incorporation of [H-3]inositol into mouse embryonic stem cells of the CCE cell line leads to the labelling of the three common phosphoinositides, phosphatidylinositol, phosphatidylinositol 4-phosphate and phosphatidylinositol 4,5-bisphosphate, and a fourth unknown lipid (lipid X). incubation with [H-3]glucosamine results in the labelling of lipid X and at least one other lipid that co-migrates with phosphatidylinositol (lipid Y), indicating that both of these lipids are putative glycosylphosphatidylinositols. In this study, the incorporation of other possible glycosylphosphatidylinositol precursors, ethanolamine, mannose and galactose, into lipids X and Y was examined. Galactose was incorporated into lipids X and Y, and ethanolamine and mannose into lipid Y only. Inhibitors of glycosylphosphatidylinositol biosynthesis pathways, mannosamine and 2-fluoro-2-deoxyglucose, both significantly inhibited ethanolamine incorporation into lipid Y. A high glucose concentration (25 mmol l(-1)) abolished the action of both inhibitors. Phospholipase C treatment of embryonic stem cells that had been labelled in culture with [3H]ethanolamine caused a large release of ethanolamine label into the incubation medium and markedly decreased the amount of ethanolamine-labelled lipid Y remaining in the cell membranes. These effects were almost totally abolished by incubation with mannosamine before ethanolamine labelling. These studies strongly indicate that lipid Y is a member of the protein anchor class of glycosylphosphatidylinositol, whereas lipid X is a member of the signal transduction inositol phosphoglycan class of glycosylphosphatidylinositol.