To quantify and characterize the insulin resistance during pregnancy in the rat, a euglycemic hyperinsulinemic clamp was set up. Dose-response curves for the effects of five concentrations of insulin on glucose production, glucose utilization, and glucose clearance were performed in age-matched virgin and 19-day-pregnant rats. Glucose production and glucose utilization were measured by using [3-3H]-glucose. Glucose production was totally suppressed at plasma insulin concentrations higher than 1,000 microU/ml in the two groups. Insulin concentration causing half-maximal suppression of glucose production was about 70 microU/ml in virgin rats and 250 microU/ml in pregnant rats. Maximal glucose utilization was obtained at plasma insulin concentrations of 2,000 microU/ml. In pregnant rats maximal increment in glucose utilization was significantly lower (P less than 0.01) than in virgin rats. Insulin concentrations causing half-maximal stimulation of glucose utilization were 200 microU/ml in virgin rats and 500 in pregnant rats. As blood glucose concentration in virgin and pregnant rats was clamped at, respectively, 0.97 +/- 0.03 and 0.73 +/- 0.03 mg/ml, glucose clearance rates were calculated because this parameter is minimally affected by the changes in blood glucose concentrations. A normal maximal increment in glucose clearance in response to insulin was restored in pregnant rats but the rightward shift of the dose-response curve was maintained. Plasma insulin concentrations necessary for half-maximal increment of glucose clearance in the two groups were similar to that observed when the results were expressed as glucose utilization. Thus, insulin resistance during late pregnancy in the rat is characterized by a decreased sensitivity of liver and peripheral tissues to insulin.