Functional heterogeneity among pancreatic beta cells is a characteristic feature of the islets of Langerhans. Under physiological conditions, beta cells in the pancreas of fed rats exhibited heterogeneous immunohistochemical staining for insulin and glucokinase. Intracellular beta cell glucokinase staining was either faint or dense. In the pericapillary space beta cell glucokinase immunoreactivity had a polar orientation, with the highest density in cytoplasmic regions close to the blood vessels. Starvation resulted in a loss of heterogeneity with homogeneous insulin staining in all beta cells of the islets, and this was accompanied by a loss of heterogeneous glucokinase staining. The intracellular polarity of glucokinase staining in contact to blood vessels also disappeared after starvation. Refeeding resulted in the reappearance of intercellular heterogeneity. In dependence on the functional demand, the endocrine pancreas recruited insulin from beta cells according to a well-defined hierarchy, with an initial preferential mobilization of medullary beta cells. In the course of this process intracellular polarity of glucokinase staining reappeared in areas of the beta cell with functional contact to the GLUT2 glucose transporter in the plasma membrane. This can be regarded as the morphological correlate of an activation of the glucose signal recognition apparatus. Interestingly, the study also provides evidence that the changes in glucokinase distribution apparently preceded those in insulin distribution, which is in keeping with the central role of glucokinase as the glucose sensor of the pancreatic beta cell.