The effects of the oral hypoglycemic drug metformin on glucose and amino acid transporter activity and subcellular localization of GLUT1 and GLUT4 glucose transporters were tested in cultured L6 myotubes. In muscle cells preexposed to maximal doses of metformin (2 mM, for 16 h), 2-deoxyglucose uptake was stimulated by over 2-fold from 5.9 +/- 0.3 to 13.3 +/- 0.5 pmol/min.mg protein. Uptake of the nonmetabolizable amino acid analog methylaminoisobutyrate was unaffected by treatment with the drug under identical conditions. Extracellular calcium was required to preserve the full response to the biguanide. Exposure of muscle cells to insulin in the presence of metformin resulted in further activation of 2-deoxyglucose transport. The latter effect was additive to the maximum effect of metformin, suggesting that the biguanide stimulates hexose uptake into muscle cells by an insulin-independent mechanism. Glucose transporter number quantified by performing studies of D-glucose-protectable binding of cytochalasin-B in plasma membranes (PM) and internal membranes (IM) prepared from L6 myotubes revealed that a 16-h treatment with 800 microM metformin significantly elevated glucose transporter number in the PM (by 47%), with an equivalent decrement in glucose transporter number (47%) in the IM. Western blot analysis using antisera reactive with the GLUT1 and GLUT4 isoforms of glucose transporters showed that metformin caused a reduction in GLUT1 content in the IM fraction and a concomitant increase in the PM. Unlike insulin, metformin treatment had no effect on the subcellular distribution of GLUT4. We propose that the molecular basis of metformin action in skeletal muscle involves the subcellular redistribution of GLUT1 proteins from an intracellular compartment to the plasma membrane. Such a recruitment process may form an integral part of the mechanism by which the drug stimulates glucose uptake (and utilization) in skeletal muscle and facilitates lowering of blood glucose in the management of type II diabetes.