We investigated the role of islet pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) enzyme activity and fatty acid oxidation in the impaired insulin secretion in spontaneously diabetic GK rats. Blood glucose levels were elevated in 2- to 3-month-old GK rats (8.7 +/- 0.5 vs. 6.5 +/- 0.3 mM in control Wistar rats; P < 0.01), whereas serum insulin levels were comparable to those in control rats. Insulin and DNA contents were similar in freshly isolated islets from GK and control rats, whereas insulin responses to 27 mM glucose from GK islets were reduced by 52%. The effect of acetate or pyruvate on insulin responses evoked by succinate monomethylester (SAM) were compared to indirectly assess deficient generation of acetyl-coenzyme A from pyruvate. Acetate potentiated SAM-induced insulin secretion similarly in GK and control islets, whereas 10 mM pyruvate (which supplies acetyl-coenzyme A through PDH enzyme activity) failed to normally potentiate insulin secretion in GK islets (92% of SAM-induced response in GK vs. 154% in control islets). The PDH activity (active form) was decreased in GK islets by 35% (P < 0.001). The proportion of active form PDH to total PDH activity was reduced in GK islets (56% vs. 71% in control islets; P < 0.01). The activity of PDH kinase (which inactivates PDH by phosphorylation) was increased in GK islets, the rate of ATP-dependent inactivation of PDH was -0.29 +/- 0.02 vs. -0.19 +/- 0.02/min in control islets (P < 0.05). Culturing GK islets for 48 h at 5.5 mM glucose failed to correct the impaired insulin response to glucose and the decreased PDH activity. Serum FFA levels and islet triglyceride contents did not differ between GK and control rats. Etomoxir (1.0 and 10 microM), a carnitine palmitoyl transferase I inhibitor, failed to enhance glucose-induced insulin release in GK islets. The following conclusions were reached: 1) a kinase-mediated decrease in PDH activity in islets of GK rats may in part account for the decreased ratio of oxidized to utilized glucose and impaired insulin release in these islets; and 2) impaired insulin release in the GK rats is not linked to an inhibitory influence of islet fatty acid oxidation.