To determine whether leptin signal transduction is exerted directly upon insulin-sensitive tissues in vivo, we examined the ability of iv leptin to acutely stimulate phosphorylation of STAT3, STAT1, and MAPK, and activities of PI 3-kinase and Akt, in insulin-sensitive tissues of normal rats. Both leptin (1 mg/kg iv x 3 min) and insulin (10 U/kg iv x 3 min) stimulated tyrosine phosphorylation of STAT3 5.6- to 6.0-fold and of STAT1 4.0-fold in adipose tissue. Leptin tended to increase STAT3 phosphorylation in liver and muscle. Both hormones also increased MAPK phosphorylation: leptin increased it 3.2- to 3.8-fold in adipose tissue and liver, whereas insulin stimulated MAPK phosphorylation 5.0-fold in adipose tissue, 6.8-fold in liver, and 2.5-fold in muscle. Leptin was much less effective than insulin at stimulating IRS pathways. Leptin increased IRS-1-associated PI 3-kinase activity in adipose tissue only 2.0-fold (P < 0.01) compared with the 10-fold effect of insulin. IRS-2-associated PI 3-kinase activity was increased 1.7-fold (P < 0.01) by leptin in liver and 6-fold by insulin. Akt phosphorylation and activity were not changed by leptin but increased with insulin. Lower concentrations of leptin (10 and 50 microg/kg) also stimulated STAT3 phosphorylation in fat. These effects appear to be direct because 3 min after leptin intracerebroventricular injection, phosphorylation of STAT3, STAT1, and MAPK were not stimulated in hypothalamus or adipose tissue. Furthermore, leptin activated STAT3 and MAPK in adipose tissue explants ex vivo and in 3T3-L1 adipocytes. Leptin did not activate STAT3 or MAPK in adipose tissue of db/db mice. Thus, leptin rapidly activates signaling pathways directly at the level of insulin sensitive tissues through the long-form leptin receptor, and these pathways overlap with, but are distinct from, those engaged by insulin.