Glucagon may regulate FFA metabolism in vivo. To test this hypothesis, six healthy male volunteers were infused with somatostatin, to inhibit endogenous hormone secretion, and insulin, glucagon, and GH to replace endogenous secretion of these hormones. In the hypoglucagonemia experiments, the glucagon infusion was omitted, and in the hyperglucagonemic experiments glucagon was infused at 1.3 ng/kg.min, to produce physiological hyperglucagonemia. In two sets of control experiments, glucagon was infused at 0.65 ng/kg.min, in order to maintain peripheral euglucagonemia, and the plasma glucose concentrations were clamped at the levels observed in either the hypo- or hyperglucagonemic experiments. Rates of FFA and glycerol (an index of lipolysis) appearance (Ra) were estimated with the isotope dilution method using [1-14C]palmitate and [2H5] glycerol. Plasma glucagon concentrations decreased during the hypoglucagonemic experiments (85 +/- 12 vs. 123 +/- 22 ng/L, P < 0.05) and increased during the hyperglucagonemic experiments (186 +/- 20 vs. 125 +/- 15 ng/L, P < 0.05), whereas other hormone concentrations remained the same. Hypoglucagonemia resulted in equivalent suppression of FFA Ra (3.7 +/- 0.2 vs. 5.9 vs. 0.3 mumol/kg.min, P < 0.01) and glycerol Ra (1.2 +/- 0.2 vs. 2.2 +/- 0.5 mumol/kg.min, P < 0.05). Similarly, hyperglucagonemia resulted in equivalent stimulation of FFA Ra (5.2 +/- 0.4 vs. 3.7 +/- 0.3 mumol/kg.min, P < 0.05) and glycerol Ra (1.5 +/- 0.3 vs. 1.1 +/- 0.1 mumol/kg.min, P < 0.05). These results indicate that glucagon has a physiological role in the regulation of FFA metabolism in vivo.