The quantitative contributions of pancreatic responsiveness and insulin sensitivity to glucose tolerance were measured using the "minimal modeling technique" in 18 lean and obese subjects (88-206% ideal body wt). The individual contributions of insulin secretion and action were measured by interpreting the dynamics of plasma glucose and insulin during the intravenous glucose tolerance test in terms of two mathematical models. One, the insulin kinetics model, yields parameters of first-phase (phi 1) and second-phase (phi 2) responsivity of the beta-cells to glucose. The other glucose kinetics model yields the insulin sensitivity parameters, SI. Lean and obese subjects were subdivided into good (KG greater than 1.5) and lower (KG less than 1.5) glucose tolerance groups. The etiology of lower glucose tolerance was entirely different in lean and obese subjects. Lean, lower tolerance was related to pancreatic insufficiency (phi 2 77% lower than in good tolerance controls [P less than 0.03]), but insulin sensitivity was normal (P greater than 0.5). In contrast, obese lower tolerance was entirely due to insulin resistance (SI diminished 60% [P less than 0.01]); pancreatic responsiveness was not different from lean, good tolerance controls (phi 1: P greater than 0.06; phi 2: P greater than 0.40). Subjects (regardless of weight) could be segregated into good and lower tolerance by the product of second-phase beta-cell responsivity and insulin sensitivity (phi 2 . SI). Thus, these two factors were primarily responsible for overall determination of glucose tolerance. The effect of phi 1 was to modulate the KG value within those groups whose overall tolerance was determined by phi 2 . SI. This phi 1 modulating influence was more pronounced among insulin sensitive (phi 1 vs. KG, r = 0.79) than insulin resistant (obese, low tolerance; phi 1 vs. KG, r = 0.91) subjects. This study demonstrates the feasibility of the minimal model technique to determine the etiology of impaired glucose tolerance.