Certain corals are rich natural sources of prostaglandins, the metabolic origin of which has remained undefined. By analogy with the lipoxygenase/allene oxide synthase pathway to jasmonic acid in plants, the presence of (8R)-lipoxygenase and allene oxide synthase in the coral Plexaura homomalla suggested a potential metabolic route to prostaglandins (Brash, A. R., Baertshi, S. W., Ingram, C.D., and Harris, T. M. (1987) J. Biol. Chem. 262, 15829-15839). Other evidence, from the Arctic coral Gersemia fruticosa, has indicated a cyclooxygenase intermediate in the biosynthesis (Varvas, K., Koljak, R., Järving, I., Pehk, T., and Samel, N. (1994) Tetrahedron Lett. 35, 8267-8270). In the present study, active preparations of G. fruticosa have been used to identify both types of arachidonic acid metabolism and specific inhibitors were used to establish the enzyme type involved in the prostaglandin biosynthesis. The synthesis of prostaglandins and (11R)-hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acid was inhibited by mammalian cyclooxygenase inhibitors (indomethacin, aspirin, and tolfenamic acid), while the formation of the products of the 8-lipoxygenase/allene oxide pathway was not affected or was increased. The specific cyclooxygenase-2 inhibitor, nimesulide, did not inhibit the synthesis of prostaglandins in coral. We conclude that coral uses two parallel routes for the initial oxidation of polyenoic acids: the cyclooxygenase route, which leads to optically active prostaglandins, and the lipoxygenase/allene oxide synthase metabolism, the role of which remains to be established. An enzyme related to mammalian cyclooxygenases is the key to prostaglandin synthesis in coral. Based on our inhibitor data, the catalytic site of this evolutionary early cyclooxygenase appears to differ significantly from both known mammalian cyclooxygenases.