Insulin-like growth factor I (IGF I) is structurally similar to insulin and shares many of its biologic properties. We compared the short-term metabolic effects of recombinant IGF I (100 micrograms [13.3 nmol] per kilogram of body weight) and insulin (0.15 IU [1 nmol] per kilogram) in eight healthy volunteers (four men and four women). The hypoglycemic responses to both hormones were nearly identical in the doses used. The lowest blood glucose levels were reached after 30 minutes: 1.98 +/- 0.44 mmol per liter after IGF I and 1.78 +/- 0.29 after insulin. On a molar basis, IGF I was only 6 percent as potent as insulin in the production of hypoglycemia. Insulin also inhibited lipolysis more effectively than IGF I. Levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, growth hormone, glucagon, and cortisol responded similarly to both agents. The hypoglycemia produced by IGF I is probably due to the supraphysiologic concentrations of the free peptide that result from its rapid intravenous injection. Fifteen minutes after injection, the serum level of IGF I increased from 144 +/- 38 ng per milliliter at base line to 424 +/- 56, of which 80 percent was free in the plasma (not bound to IGF carrier proteins). The determination of whether any of the short-term metabolic effects of IGF I have any clinical application will require further investigation.