We have assessed the mechanisms involved in the pathogenesis of the insulin resistance associated with impaired glucose tolerance and Type II diabetes mellitus by exploring, by means of the euglycemic glucose-clamp technique, the in vivo dose-response relationship between serum insulin and the overall rate of glucose disposal in 14 control subjects; 8 subjects with impaired glucose tolerance, and 23 subjects with Type II diabetes. Each subject had at least three studies performed on separate days at insulin infusion rates of 40, 120, 240, 1,200, or 1,800 mU/M2 per min. In the subjects with impaired glucose tolerance, the dose-response curve was shifted to the right (half-maximally effective insulin level 240 vs. 135 microunits/ml for controls), but the maximal rate of glucose disposal remained normal. In patients with Type II diabetes mellitus, the dose-response curve was also shifted to the right, but in addition, there was a posal. This pattern was seen both in the 13 nonobese and the 10 obese diabetic subjects. Among these patients, an inverse linear relationship exists (r = -0.72) so that the higher the fasting glucose level, the lower the maximal glucose disposal rate. Basal rates of hepatic glucose output were 74 +/- 4, 82 +/- 7, 139 +/- 24, and 125 +/- 16 mg/M2 per min for the control subjects, subjects with impaired glucose tolerance, nonobese Type II diabetic subjects, and obese Type II diabetic subjects, respectively. Higher serum insulin levels were required to suppress hepatic glucose output in the subjects with impaired glucose tolerance and Type II diabetics, compared with controls, but hepatic glucose output could be totally suppressed in each study group. We conclude that the mechanisms of insulin resistance in patients with impaired glucose tolerance and in patients with Type II noninsulin-dependent diabetes are complex, and result from heterogeneous causes. (a) In the patients with the mildest disorders of carbohydrate homeostasis (patients with impaired glucose tolerance) the insulin resistance can be accounted for solely on the basis of decreased insulin receptors. (b) In patients with fasting hyperglycemia, insulin resistance is due to both decreased insulin receptors and postreceptor defect in the glucose mechanisms. (c) As the hyperglycemia worsens, the postreceptor defect in peripheral glucose disposal emerges and progressively increases. And (d) no postreceptor defect was detected in any of the patient groups when insulin's ability to suppress hepatic glucose output was measured.