Insulin secretion from pancreatic islet beta cells is a tightly regulated process, under the close control of blood glucose concentrations, neural inputs and circulating hormones. Defects in glucose-triggered insulin secretion, possibly exacerbated by a decrease in beta cell mass, are ultimately responsible for the development of type 2 diabetes. A full understanding of the mechanisms by which glucose and other nutrients trigger insulin secretion will probably be essential to allow for the development of new therapies of type 2 diabetes and for the derivation of "artificial" beta cells from embryonic stem cells as a treatment for type 1 diabetes. I focus here on recent developments in our understanding of beta cell glucose sensing, achieved in part through the development of recombinant targeted probes (luciferase, green fluorescent protein) that allow islet beta cell metabolism and Ca(2+) handling to be imaged in situ in the intact islet with single cell resolution. Combined with classical biochemistry, these techniques show that the beta cell is uniquely poised, thanks to the expression of low levels of lactate dehydrogenase and plasma membrane lactate/monocarboxylate transporters, to channel glucose carbons towards oxidative metabolism, ATP synthesis and inhibition of AMP-activated protein kinase, a newly defined regulator of insulin release. I also discuss the molecular basis of the recruitment of secretory vesicles to the cell surface, analysed by the use of new imaging techniques including total internal reflection of fluorescence, as well as the "nanomechanics" of the exocytotic event itself.