Spatially localized 31P NMR spectroscopy was used to assay in vivo the liver of intact rats fed erotic acid (OA) in a diet which produces hepatic steatosis. Twenty-three sets of multiple volume spectra were obtained from twenty-one 265- to 315-g female rats after 0-9 days of feeding either a 1% OA/64% sucrose diet (12 rats) or a 65% sucrose control diet (9 rats). The intensity of the in vivo diphosphodiester resonance ascribed to UDP-hexos(amin)es increased and the phosphomonoester resonance decreased in intensity prior to fatty infiltration. High resolution NMR spectroscopy of extracts of these livers indicated that the UDP-hexos(amin)e peak included four different UDP-sugars including UDP-N-acetylglucosamine (UDP-glcNAc), and that lower phosphocholine (P-Cho) accounted for the lower phosphomonoester resonance in vivo. Increased UDP-glcNAc is thought to reflect impaired lipoprotein glycosylation as a mechanism for hepatic steatosis in orotic acid feeding. P-Cho deficiency has been shown to be due to an increased rate of phosphatidylcholine synthesis. Low P-Cho concentration has been shown to be associated with lipid accumulation in a choline-deficient diet, but was not previously associated with hepatic steatosis in OA feeding. Changes in phosphorus metabolites were observed 2 days prior to the development of fatty liver, HPLC assay of uridine nucleotides showed a good correlation between magnetic resonance spectroscopy and HPLC quantitation. In this study there were two biochemical correlates of impaired hepatic lipid secretion detectable by in vivo assay with 31P NMR spectroscopy. This method has application for noninvasive assays in ornithine transcarbamylase-deficient patients.