Psammomys lapses into fully fledged diabetes when maintained on a high-energy diet. Progression to diabetes has been classified into stage A of normoglycemia and normoinsulinemia (<120 mg/ml and 100 mU/L, respectively); stage B of hyperinsulinemia (100-300 mU/L) with marked insulin resistance in the face of normoglycemia; stage C of pronounced hyperinsulinemia with hyperglycemia < or =500 mg/ml; stage D at 6-10 weeks after stage C, featuring further hyperglycemia and loss of insulin. Insulin resistance expressed in Psammomys at stages B and C was demonstrated by nonsuppression of the hepatic gluconeogenesis enzyme phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase by the endogenous hyperinsulinemia and by the reduced capacity of insulin to activate muscle and liver tyrosine kinase of the insulin receptor. Diabetes at stage C, but not at stage D, was fully reversed to stage A by restricting the food ration of animals by half (from 14 to 7 g/day) for 10-14 days. We examined islet beta cells of Psammomys in the four stages of progression to diabetes by staining for insulin as well as for apoptosis by the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase biotin-dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL) and visualizing the biotin-labeled cleavage sites. Psammomys in stage A had insulin-laden beta cells. In stage B, a hypertrophy and partial insulin depletion of beta cells was evident with negative TUNEL staining. In stage C, beta cells were markedly depleted of insulin, and their number within the islets decreased, but the TUNEL staining was virtually negative. In stage D, beta cells were markedly diminished within the islets, almost void of insulin, showing distinct TUNEL staining of beta cells. These results indicate that prolonged exposure of islets to in vivo hyperglycemia with beta-cell overtaxation induces nuclear disintegration with irreversible damage to the insulin-secretion apparatus. This precludes the return to normalcy by restricting the food intake of Psammomys. The appearance of cells with TUNEL-positive staining may serve as a marker of impending irreversibility of nutritionally induced diabetes.