Quantitative structure-activity relationships were determined for the diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) toxins, okadaic acid (OA), OA diol-ester and dinophysistoxin-4 (DTX-4), using a sensitive bioassay procedure with the diatom Thalassiosira weissflogii. OA diol-ester was found to be nearly as toxic as OA. This result contradicted the accepted idea that only the free acid toxins, such as DTX-1 and OA, are potent phosphatase inhibitors. Postassay analyses using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) of cultures incubated with OA diol-ester showed that the ester had partially decomposed to OA, which explained some but not all of the observed toxicity. The formation of OA during the bioassay raised the possibility that cells exposed to inactive DSP toxin esters could metabolically activate them. This was examined in an additional experiment which showed that the hydrolysis of both DTX-4 and OA diol-ester was spontaneous and apparently not mediated by the presence of T. weissflogii cells. However, cells of T. weissflogii challenged with OA diol-ester rapidly metabolized most of the toxin to a more water-soluble product. From interpretation of mass spectral data obtained using ion-spray LC-MS, the metabolite was identified as an oxygenated diol-ester of OA, implying that it was the product of a monooxygenase-detoxification pathway. It is postulated that OA diol-ester, as a lipid-soluble, uncharged molecule with a propensity to hydrolyse to OA, may facilitate the transfer of OA across cell walls and membranes.