The insulinotropic agent, exendin-4, is a long-acting analogue of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) which improves glucose tolerance in humans and animals with diabetes, but the underlying mechanisms and the effects of exendin-4 on peripheral (muscle/fat) insulin action are unclear. Previous in vivo and clinical studies have been difficult to interpret because of complex, simultaneous changes in insulin and glucagon levels and possible effects on hepatic metabolism. Thus, the comparative effects of exendin-4 and GLP-1 on insulin-stimulated 2-[3H]deoxyglucose (2-DOG) uptake were measured in fully differentiated L6 myotubes and 3T3-adipocytes, including co-incubation with inhibitors of the PI-3-kinase (wortmannin) and mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase (PD098059) pathways. In L6 myotubes, there was a concentration-dependent and PI-3-kinase-dependent increase in insulin-stimulated 2-DOG uptake with exendin-4 and GLP-1, e.g. for exendin-4 the C(I-200) value (concentration of insulin required to increase 2-DOG uptake 2-fold) decreased from 1.3 +/- 1.4 x 10(-7)M (insulin alone, n=16) to 5.9 +/- 1.3 x 10(-8)M (insulin+exendin-4 0.1nM, n=18, P<0.03). A similar insulin-sensitizing effect was observed with exendin-4 in 3T3-adipocytes, but GLP-1 had no effect on adipocyte insulin sensitivity. In conclusion, this is the first direct evidence showing that exendin-4 increases insulin-stimulated glucose uptake in muscle and fat derived cells via a pathway that involves PI-3-kinase activation. Furthermore, the contrasting responses of exendin and GLP-1 in 3T3-adipocytes suggest that the peripheral insulin-sensitizing effect of exendin-4 (in contrast to the insulinotropic effect) does not involve the GLP-1 receptor pathway.