Glucose triggers bursting activity in pancreatic islets, which mediates the Ca2+ uptake that triggers insulin secretion. Aside from the channel mechanism responsible for bursting, which remains unsettled, it is not clear whether bursting is an endogenous property of individual beta-cells or requires an electrically coupled islet. While many workers report stochastic firing or quasibursting in single cells, a few reports describe single-cell bursts much longer (minutes) than those of islets (15-60 s). We studied the behavior of single cells systematically to help resolve this issue. Perforated patch recordings were made from single mouse beta-cells or hamster insulinoma tumor cells in current clamp at 30-35 degrees C, using standard K+-rich pipette solution and external solutions containing 11.1 mM glucose. Dynamic clamp was used to apply artificial KATP and Ca2+ channel conductances to cells in current clamp to assess the role of Ca2+ and KATP channels in single cell firing. The electrical activity we observed in mouse beta-cells was heterogeneous, with three basic patterns encountered: 1) repetitive fast spiking; 2) fast spikes superimposed on brief (<5 s) plateaus; or 3) periodic plateaus of longer duration (10-20 s) with small spikes. Pattern 2 was most similar to islet bursting but was significantly faster. Burst plateaus lasting on the order of minutes were only observed when recordings were made from cell clusters. Adding gCa to cells increased the depolarizing drive of bursting and lengthened the plateaus, whereas adding gKATP hyperpolarized the cells and lengthened the silent phases. Adding gCa and gKATP together did not cancel out their individual effects but could induce robust bursts that resembled those of islets, and with increased period. These added currents had no slow components, indicating that the mechanisms of physiological bursting are likely to be endogenous to single beta-cells. It is unlikely that the fast bursting (class 2) was due to oscillations in gKATP because it persisted in 100 microM tolbutamide. The ability of small exogenous currents to modify beta-cell firing patterns supports the hypothesis that single cells contain the necessary mechanisms for bursting but often fail to exhibit this behavior because of heterogeneity of cell parameters.