Pancreatic beta cells are sensitive to reactive oxygen species and this may play an important role in type 1 diabetes and during transplantation. Beta cells contain low levels of enzyme systems that protect against reactive oxygen species. The weakest link in their protection system is a deficiency in the ability to detoxify hydrogen peroxide by the enzymes glutathione peroxidase and catalase. We hypothesize that the deficit in the ability to dispose of reactive oxygen species is responsible for the unusual sensitivity of beta cells and that increasing protection will result in more resistant beta cells. To test these hypotheses we have produced transgenic mice with increased beta cell levels of catalase. Seven lines of catalase transgenic mice were produced using the insulin promoter to direct pancreatic beta cell specific expression. Catalase activity in islets from these mice was increased by as much as 50-fold. Northern blot analysis of several tissues indicated that overexpression was specific to the pancreatic islet. Catalase overexpression had no detrimental effects on islet function. To test whether increased catalase activity could protect the transgenic islets we exposed them to hydrogen peroxide, streptozocin, and interleukin-1beta. Fifty-fold overexpression of catalase produced marked protection of islet insulin secretion against hydrogen peroxide and significantly reduced the diabetogenic effect of streptozocin in vivo. However, catalase overexpression did not provide protection against interleukin-1beta toxicity and did not alter the effects of syngeneic and allogenic transplantation on islet insulin content. Our results indicate that in the pancreatic beta cell overexpression of catalase is protective against some beta cell toxins and is compatible with normal function.