Rat hearts were perfused for 1 h with 5 mm glucose with or without palmitate or oleate at concentrations characteristic of the fasting state. The inclusion of fatty acids resulted in increased activities of the alpha-1 or the alpha-2 isoforms of AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), increased phosphorylation of acetyl-CoA carboxylase and a decrease in the tissue content of malonyl-CoA. Activation of AMPK was not accompanied by any changes in the tissue contents of ATP, ADP, AMP, phosphocreatine or creatine. Palmitate increased phosphorylation of Thr172 within AMPK alpha-subunits and the activation by palmitate of both AMPK isoforms was abolished by protein phosphatase 2C leading to the conclusion that exposure to fatty acid caused activation of an AMPK kinase or inhibition of an AMPK phosphatase. In vivo, 24 h of starvation also increased heart AMPK activity and Thr172 phosphorylation of AMPK alpha-subunits. Perfusion with insulin decreased both alpha-1 and alpha-2 AMPK activities and increased malonyl-CoA content. Palmitate prevented both of these effects. Perfusion with epinephrine decreased malonyl-CoA content without an effect on AMPK activity but prevented the activation of AMPK by palmitate. The concept is discussed that activation of AMPK by an unknown fatty acid-driven signalling process provides a mechanism for a 'feed-forward' activation of fatty acid oxidation.