By using the euglycemic glucose-clamp technique we have observed the effects of comparable low dose proinsulin and insulin infusions on isotopically determined glucose turnover in 20 anesthetized dogs. In each animal somatostatin (SRIF) infusion was used to suppress endogenous pancreatic hormone secretion and basal glucagon was replaced. Peripheral proinsulin (0.083 micrograms X kg-1 X min-1) and insulin (350 microU X kg-1 X min-1) levels 15- to 20-fold higher than insulin on a molar basis, based on previous observations that proinsulin has only 5-10% the biologic potency of insulin. Three groups of infusion studies were performed: SRIF and glucagon (n = 5); SRIF, glucagon, and proinsulin (n = 10); and SRIF, glucagon, and insulin (n = 5). The mean serum proinsulin level of 2.43 +/- 0.36 pmol/ml achieved represented a 17-fold excess compared with the mean serum insulin level of 0.14 +/- 0.03 pmol (20 +/- 4 microU/ml). At these concentrations, both hormones reduced hepatic glucose production rates by approximately 50% to 2.0 +/- 0.2 mg X kg-1 X min-1 and 1.8 +/- 0.5 mg X kg-1 X min-1, respectively. In contrast, proinsulin failed to stimulate peripheral glucose utilization, whereas insulin led to a 2.0 +/- 0.3 mg X kg-1 X min-1 increment (approximately 50% increase) in glucose uptake (P less than 0.05). Thus at low infusion rates proinsulin exerts its effect predominantly by suppressing hepatic glucose production without measurable stimulation of peripheral glucose disposal. In contrast, for a comparable degree of hepatic glucose output suppression, insulin also significantly stimulates glucose disposal.