The intracellular calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i) near the plasma membrane was measured in mouse pancreatic islet cells using confocal spot detection methods. Whereas small cytosolic Ca2+ gradients were observed with 3 mM glucose, a steeper sustained gradient restricted to domains beneath the plasma membrane (space constant, 0.67 micrometer) appeared with 16.7 mM glucose. When the membrane potential was clamped with increasing K+ concentrations (5, 20 and 40 mM), no [Ca2+]i gradients were observed in any case. Increasing glucose concentration (0, 5 and 16.7 mM) in the presence of 100 microM diazoxide, a K+ channel opener, plus 40 mM K+ induced steeper [Ca2+]i gradients, confirming the role of membrane potential-independent effects of glucose. Prevention of Ca2+ store refilling with 30 microM cyclopiazonic acid (CPA) or blockade of uniporter-mediated Ca2+ influx into the mitochondria with 1 microM carbonyl cyanide m-chlorophenyl hydrazone (CCCP) or 1 microM Ru-360 significantly reduced the steepness of the 16.7 mM glucose-induced [Ca2+]i gradients. Measured values of [Ca2+]i reached 6.74 +/- 0.67 microM at a distance of 0.5 micrometer from the plasma membrane and decayed to 0.27 +/- 0.03 microM at a distance of 2 micrometer. Mathematically processed values at 0.25 and 0 micrometer gave a higher [Ca2+]i, reaching 8.18 +/- 0.86 and 10.05 +/- 0.98 microM, respectively. The results presented indicate that glucose metabolism generates [Ca2+]i microgradients, which reach values of around 10 microM, and whose regulation requires the involvement of both mitochondrial Ca2+ uptake and endoplasmic reticulum Ca2+ stores.