Diacylglycerols (DAG) modulate secretory responses by the activation of protein kinase C. Early changes in DAG formation induced by the muscarinic receptor agonist carbachol were compared to those caused by the nutrient secretagogue glucose in pancreatic islets. Turnover rates of DAG were investigated in radiolabeling experiments, whereas changes in total mass and fatty acid composition of DAG were assessed by gas-liquid chromatography. When islet lipids were labeled to steady state in tissue culture with [3H]glycerol, carbachol induced a rapid (10 s) and sustained increase of [3H]DAG generation. In contrast, glucose stimulation failed to increase [3H]glycerol containing DAG, and this was probably due to the isotopic dilution of the label secondary to enhanced glycolysis. This was substantiated by following the transfer of 14C from glucose into DAG. Within 1 min of acute exposure of islets to D-[U-14C]-glucose at stimulatory concentrations, DAG labeling increased fivefold representing up to 2% of total glucose usage. Similar stimulation of 14C incorporation into other neutral lipids and inositol phospholipids was observed, suggesting the enhanced de novo synthesis of phosphatidic acid, the common precursor for DAG, and inositol phospholipids from glycolytic intermediates. Transfer of 14C from glucose was not stimulated by agents such as carbachol and exogenous phospholipase C that act primarily on inositol phospholipid breakdown. The total mass of islet DAG was increased by 60% after both carbachol and glucose stimulation. However, analysis of the fatty acid composition of carbachol-generated DAG revealed at the early time point (10 s) a prevalent stearoyl-arachidonoyl configuration similar to that reported for inositol phospholipids. This pattern shifted to a DAG enriched in palmitic acid at a later time point. Glucose-stimulated islets displayed a predominance of palmitic acid containing DAG, indicating increased de novo synthesis of the putative second messenger rather than its formation by inositol phospholipid hydrolysis. Indeed, steady-state labeling of these phospholipids with [3H]inositol confirmed this idea since only carbachol caused detectable inositol phospholipid hydrolysis. Thus, although protein kinase C may be activated by both carbachol and glucose, the two secretagogues generate diacylglycerols through different mechanisms.