The acute effect of palmitate on glucose metabolism in rat skeletal muscle was examined. Soleus muscles from Wistar male rats were incubated in Krebs-Ringer bicarbonate buffer, for 1 h, in the absence or presence of 10 mU/ml insulin and 0, 50 or 100 microM palmitate. Palmitate increased the insulin-stimulated [(14)C]glycogen synthesis, decreased lactate production, and did not alter D-[U-(14)C]glucose decarboxylation and 2-deoxy-D-[2,6-(3)H]glucose uptake. This fatty acid decreased the conversion of pyruvate to lactate and [1-(14)C]pyruvate decarboxylation and increased (14)CO(2) produced from [2-(14)C]pyruvate. Palmitate reduced insulin-stimulated phosphorylation of insulin receptor substrate-1/2, Akt, and p44/42 mitogen-activated protein kinases. Bromopalmitate, a non-metabolizable analogue of palmitate, reduced [(14)C]glycogen synthesis. A strong correlation was found between [U-(14)C]palmitate decarboxylation and [(14)C]glycogen synthesis (r=0.99). Also, palmitate increased intracellular content of glucose 6-phosphate in the presence of insulin. These results led us to postulate that palmitate acutely potentiates insulin-stimulated glycogen synthesis by a mechanism that requires its metabolization (Randle cycle). The inhibitory effect of palmitate on insulin-stimulated protein phosphorylation might play an important role for the development of insulin resistance in conditions of chronic exposure to high levels of fatty acids.