Pancreatic beta-cells respond to glucose stimulation with increase of the cytoplasmic Ca(2+) concentration ([Ca(2+)](i)), manifested as membrane-derived slow oscillations sometimes superimposed with transients of intracellular origin. The effect of external ATP on the oscillatory Ca(2+) signal for pulsatile insulin release was studied by digital imaging of fura-2 loaded beta-cells and small aggregates isolated from islets of ob/ob-mice. Addition of ATP (0.01-100 microM) to media containing 20mM glucose temporarily synchronized the [Ca(2+)](i) rhythmicity in the absence of cell contact by eliciting premature oscillations. External ATP triggered premature [Ca(2+)](i) oscillations also when the sarcoendoplasmic reticulum Ca(2+)-ATPase was inhibited with 50 microM cyclopiazonic acid and phospholipase C inhibited with 10 microM U-73122. The effect of ATP was mimicked by other activators of cytoplasmic phospholipase A(2) (10nM acetylcholine, 0.1-1 micro M of the C-terminal octapeptide of cholecystokinin and 2 microg/ml melittin) and suppressed by an inhibitor of the enzyme (50 microM p-amylcinnamoylanthranilic acid). Premature oscillations generated by pulses of ATP sometimes triggered subsequent oscillations. However, prolonged exposure to high concentrations of the nucleotide (10-100 microM) had a suppressive action on the beta-cell rhythmicity. The early effects of ATP included generation of transients induced by inositol (1,4,5) trisphosphate and superimposed on the premature oscillation or on an ordinary oscillation induced by glucose. The results support the idea that purinergic activation of phospholipase A(2) has a co-ordinating effect on the beta-cell rhythmicity by triggering premature [Ca(2+)](i) oscillations mediated by closure of ATP-sensitive K(+) channels.