The ingestion of fats is a potent stimulus for the secretion of the proglucagon-derived peptides (PGDPs), including the insulinotropic peptide glucagon-like peptide-1 from the intestinal L cell. The aim of the study was to characterize the structural requirements for fatty acid-induced secretion of the PGDPs and investigate the cellular mechanisms through which fatty acids mediate PGDP secretion. Fetal rat intestinal cell cultures were incubated with 10-150 microM fatty acids that differed in chain length (14-18 carbons) and degree of unsaturation (0-2). Inhibitors of protein kinase C (PKC) and fatty acid esterification and oxidation were also incubated with the cells in the presence of stimulatory fatty acids. The cultures were assayed for glucagon-like immunoreactivity and glucagon-like peptide-1-(7-36)NH2 secretion. Monounsaturated fatty acids of chain length greater than 14 carbons stimulated PGDP secretion by 1.8 to 3.4-fold in a dose-dependent fashion (P < 0.05 to P < 0.001). Enhanced PGDP secretion was lost upon full saturation of the stimulatory fatty acids. Furthermore, although blockade of fatty acid esterification with a carboxyl methyl ester group prevented PGDP secretion, inhibition of fatty acid oxidation with methyl palmoxirate did not prevent PGDP secretion. Finally, the use of various inhibitors of PKC (staurosporine, H7, 24-h down-regulation) also did not alter fatty acid-induced PGDP secretion. In conclusion, monounsaturated long-chain fatty acids possessing a free carboxyl group stimulate intestinal PGDP secretion. Neither fatty acid oxidation nor classical isoforms of PKC appear to be directly involved in this response. Therefore, the structure of the fatty acid plays a central role in inducing intestinal PGDP secretion. These findings suggest that fat composition may significantly affect the magnitude of the GLP-1 response to ingested nutrients.