Free fatty acids in isolated pancreatic islets have been quantified by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry after stimulation with insulin secretagogues. The fuel secretagogue D-glucose has been found to induce little change in islet palmitate levels but does induce the accumulation of sufficient unesterified arachidonate by mass to achieve an increment in cellular levels of 38-75 microM. Little of this free arachidonate is released into the perifusion medium, and most remains associated with the islets. Glucose-induced hydrolysis of arachidonate from islet cell phospholipids is reflected by release of the arachidonate metabolite prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) from perifused islets. Both the depolarizing insulin secretagogue tolbutamide (which is thought to act by inducing closure of beta-cell ATP-sensitive K+ channels and the influx of extracellular Ca2+ through voltage-dependent channels) and the calcium ionophore A23187 have also been found to induce free arachidonate accumulation within and PGE2 release from islets. Surprisingly, a major fraction of glucose-induced eicosanoid release was found not to require Ca2+ influx and occurred even in Ca(2+)-free medium, in the presence of the Ca(2+)-chelating agent EGTA, and in the presence of the Ca2+ channel blockers verapamil and nifedipine. Exogenous arachidonic acid was found to amplify the insulin secretory response of perifused islets to submaximally depolarizing concentrations of KCl, and the maximally effective concentration of arachidonate was 30-40 microM. These observations suggest that glucose-induced phospholipid hydrolysis and free arachidonate accumulation in pancreatic islets are not simply epiphenomena associated with Ca2+ influx and that arachidonate accumulation may play a role in the signaling process which leads to insulin secretion.