Sterol regulatory element-binding proteins (SREBPs) are membrane-bound transcription factors that increase the synthesis of fatty acids as well as cholesterol in animal cells. All three SREBP isoforms (SREBP-1a, -1c, and -2) are subject to feedback regulation by cholesterol, which blocks their proteolytic release from membranes. Previous data indicate that the SREBPs are also negatively regulated by unsaturated fatty acids, but the mechanism is uncertain. In the current experiments, unsaturated fatty acids decreased the nuclear content of SREBP-1, but not SREBP-2, in cultured human embryonic kidney (HEK)-293 cells. The potency of unsaturated fatty acids increased with increasing chain length and degree of unsaturation. Oleate, linoleate, and arachidonate were all effective, but the saturated fatty acids palmitate and stearate were not effective. Down-regulation occurred at two levels. The mRNAs encoding SREBP-1a and SREBP-1c were markedly reduced, and the proteolytic processing of these SREBPs was inhibited. When SREBP-1a was produced by a cDNA expressed from an independent promoter, unsaturated fatty acids reduced nuclear SREBP-1a without affecting the mRNA level. There was no effect when the cDNA encoded a truncated version that was not membrane-bound. When administered together, sterols and unsaturated fatty acids potentiated each other in reducing nuclear SREBP-1. In the absence of fatty acids, sterols did not cause a sustained reduction of nuclear SREBP-1, but they did reduce nuclear SREBP-2. We conclude that unsaturated fatty acids, as well as sterols, can down-regulate nuclear SREBPs and that unsaturated fatty acids have their greatest inhibitory effects on SREBP-1a and SREBP-1c, whereas sterols have their greatest inhibitory effects on SREBP-2.