Anionic fluxes during the membrane realignments of stimulated insulin release have not been characterized previously although cations have been implicated in stimulus-secretion coupling. We have shown that a limited packet pulse of phosphate release ("phosphate flush") begins at the same time that the first phase of insulin secretion may occur. To demonstrate this phenomenon, we have prelabeled islets, obtained from rat pancreas by collagenase digestions, by incubation with [(32)P]orthophosphate. When such prelabeled islets are perifused with Krebs-Ringer bicarbonate containing 0.5 mg/ml D-glucose, a basal rate of efflux of radioactivity is established; transfer to perifusates containing 3.0 mg/ml D-glucose elicits an increased (32)P efflux within 1-2 min to peak values which are 7- to 21-fold greater than basal. The total duration of this "phosphate flush" approximates 10 min and exceeds the duration of the first phase of stimulated insulin secretion. With lesser concentrations of glucose, the flush exhibits dose-response relationships, and with 3 mg/ml glucose, a second flush can be elicited by restoring basal conditions and stimulating anew with 3 mg/ml glucose. The phenomenon is highly specific and can be reduplicated by other secretagogues (L-leucine) or sugars (D-mannose) which are also known to elicit insulin release but not by sugars which fail to affect insulin secretion (D-galactose, D-fructose, i-inositol, L-glucose). The efflux of radioactivity consists entirely of [(32)P]orthophosphate. Phosphate flush persists in phosphate-free media, Ca(++)-free media, and when insulin release is obtunded by adding Ni(++) (2 mM) to the perifusates. Thus, efflux of [(32)P]orthophosphate can be dissociated from insulin extrusion, and from net influx of ionic phosphate or calcium. Membrane stabilization with D(2)O or 1.0 mM tetracaine reversibly inhibits phosphate flush. Although the mechanism by which this effect occurs has not yet been established, the phosphate flush appears to constitute one of the earliest and hitherto unknown indices of the excitatory state in pancreatic islets.