Equilibrium dialysis was used to study the binding of two nonhydrolyzable, short chain phospholipid analogues to the secreted group IA phospholipase A(2) (PLA(2)), which has been shown to contain several phospholipid binding sites that dramatically affect activity. This study provides new insight into how these activations occur. One analogue contained a phosphorylethanolamine (DiC(6)SNPE) headgroup, while the other contained a phosphorylcholine (DiC(6)SNPC) headgroup. Using phospholipase D, we incorporated tritium into each analogue. No binding of DiC(6)SNPE to PLA(2) was observed under submicellar conditions. Addition of submicellar amounts of Triton X-100 resulted in a linear nonsaturating response to lipid concentration, suggestive of premicellar aggregation of the DiC(6)SNPE with Triton X-100 and PLA(2). Binding of DiC(6)SNPE when presented as Triton X-100 mixed micelles saturated at 0.93 binding sites per PLA(2) with a K(D) of 38 microM. Addition of sphingomyelin, a potent activator of PLA(2) hydrolysis of phosphorylethanolamine containing compounds, resulted in a 13-fold decrease in the K(D), to 2.8 microM. This suggests that changes in the catalytic site binding affinity contribute to "phosphatidylcholine activation". Binding of DiC(6)SNPC with 2.0 mM Triton X-100 showed positive cooperativity (Hill coefficient of 1.7), which saturated at 2.0 binding sites per PLA(2). No binding of either analogue was observed when the catalytic site was alkylated with p-bromophenacyl bromide. Since p-bromophenacyl bromide does not physically block the phosphatidylcholine activator site, this indicates that the two phosphatidylcholine binding sites interact. The binding studies show that DiC(6)SNPC binds cooperatively to two sites on group IA PLA(2), while DiC(6)SNPE binds to only one site.