Insulin secretory physiology has been characterized in tumor cell lines derived by primary culture of insulinomas that developed in transgenic mice expressing the large T-antigen of SV40 in pancreatic islet beta-cells. Cells in one of these lines, beta TC-3, contain large amounts of insulin (3100 +/- 294 ng/100 micrograms cellular protein). Constitutive release of insulin over 2 h in static incubation was low at 31.9 ng/100 micrograms protein and was increased 2-fold by glucose (16.7 mM) and 8-fold by depolarizing concentrations of potassium (45 mM). Isobutylmethylxanthine (IBMX; 0.5 mM) and forskolin (5 and 50 microM), which elevated cellular levels of cAMP, were ineffective as secretagogues, but dramatically potentiated glucose and potassium effects on insulin release (6.5- and 4-fold, respectively). A variety of other known insulin secretagogues stimulated insulin release in a manner analogous to their effects in normal islets. The sulfonylurea glipizide (1 microM) and the tumor-promoting phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (1 microM) stimulated insulin release 3.4- and 13.7-fold, respectively. The cholinergic agonist carbachol (2 microM) was ineffective alone, but potentiated glucose-induced insulin release 2.8-fold. Comparable stimulation of insulin release by glucose (16.7 mM) and glucose (16.7 mM) plus IBMX (0.5 mM) was noted with several other beta TC lines, which were derived independently from separate transgenic mice. Glucose- and glucose- plus IBMX (0.5 mM)-induced insulin release occurred progressively from 0.15-16.7 mM, indicating that insulin release from beta TC-3 cells occurred at much lower levels than that from normal islets. However, as in the normal islet, the glucose concentration dependency for insulin release was highly correlated (r = 0.93) with the glucose concentration dependency for glucose utilization (measured by 3H2O formation from [5-3H]glucose). This suggests that glucose induces insulin release from beta TC-3 cells by a mechanism similar to that in the normal islet. The high insulin content, the multifold stimulation of insulin release by a variety of secretagogues, their convenient propagation in culture, and the renewable source of these cell lines make the beta TC cells a convenient model for studies of beta-cell function.