The kinetics of insulin secretion and oxygen uptake in response to D-glucose and tolbutamide were compared in mouse pancreatic islets. In addition, the role of decreased ATP as a driving force for secretagogue-induced oxygen consumption was examined. D-glucose (10-30 mmol/l) triggered a biphasic insulin release which always coincided with a monophasic increase in islet oxygen uptake. In the presence of D-glucose (5-30 mmol/l), tolbutamide (3-500 mumol/l) consistently elicited an initial peak of insulin secretion which was followed by a continued decline. Tolbutamide-induced secretory profiles were accompanied by similar respiratory profiles. Oxygen consumption per ng of insulin released during the test phase was higher after elevation of the glucose concentration than after addition of tolbutamide. In conjunction with 5 or 10 mmol/l D-glucose, but not with 15 or 30 mmol/l D-glucose, tolbutamide (30-100 mumol/l) lowered islet ATP content significantly (p less than 0.02). Phosphocreatine was not found in isolated islets, although they contained substantial creatine kinase activity. It is concluded that the driving force for tolbutamide-induced oxygen uptake is a decrease in the phosphorylation potential caused by the work load imposed by stimulation of the secretion process. However, a major proportion of the respiratory response to glucose also results from enhancement of biosynthesis.