We have assessed the time course of alterations in several biochemical parameters and expression of specific mRNAs in gastrocnemius muscle following both the induction of diabetes and the administration of insulin to diabetic rats. Muscle mass, total RNA, and total protein were reduced, whereas poly(A)+ RNA relative to total RNA was increased following the induction of diabetes. All the above parameters, with the exception of poly(A)+ RNA, were reciprocally and rapidly altered following administration of insulin to 3-day diabetic animals. These changes suggest that during the induction of diabetes 1) total cellular protein is reduced at a rate that is less than the reduction in gastrocnemius mass, whereas RNA is reduced at a rate 1.5 times the reduction in tissue mass, and 2) poly(A)+ RNA is elevated relative to total RNA. After insulin administration, there appears to be coordinate synthesis of both poly(A)+ RNA and ribosomal RNA, assuming 85% of total RNA is ribosomal. Therefore, we conclude that poly(A)+ RNA is more stable than ribosomal RNA during diabetes, whereas the amounts of poly(A)+ RNA and ribosomal RNA are increased at the same rates following insulin administration to diabetic animals. Analysis of expression of specific gene products over the same time course, as assessed by in vitro translation of total RNA followed by two-dimensional gel analysis, suggests that there are a few mRNAs that are very rapidly altered in response to insulin administration. The mRNAs that are altered demonstrate variable temporal patterns of either repression or full or transient expression. These rapid, but limited, alterations in gene expression may prove important in the development of the defects that occur in skeletal muscle in response to diabetes.