In order to assess the possible role of L-arginine accumulation in islet cells as a determinant of its insulinotropic action, the uptake of L-arginine and other cationic amino acids (L-ornithine, L-homoarginine, D,L-alpha-methylornithine, D,L-alpha-difluoromethylornithine) by rat pancreatic islets was compared to the ionic and secretory responses of the islets to the same amino acids. A tight correlation was found between the net uptake of these amino acids and their capacity to stimulate 86Rb efflux, 45Ca uptake and efflux, and insulin release. In the latter respect, there was little difference between metabolized and nonmetabolized amino acids. Thus, although L-homoarginine and 4-amino-1-guanylpiperidine-4-carboxylic acid failed to act as a substrate for either arginase or amino acid aminotransferase in islet homogenates, they both stimulated 86Rb efflux, 45Ca uptake and efflux, and insulin secretion in intact islets. These findings are compatible with the view that the accumulation of these positively charged amino acids in islet cells represents an essential determinant of their secretory action. Hence, the release of insulin evoked by these amino acids could be due to depolarization of the plasma membrane with subsequent gating of voltage-sensitive Ca2+ channels and/or to some other biophysical effect, as suggested by the persistence of a sizeable secretory response to L-arginine or L-ornithine in islets perifused at a high concentrations of extracellular K+ (50 mM).