Previous work demonstrated that methyl esters of succinate are potent insulin secretagogues in pancreatic islets, while unesterified succinate is not. This can be explained by studies reported here, which show that 14C-labeled dimethyl succinate is metabolized to 14CO2 by pancreatic islets, but that 14C-labeled succinic acid is not metabolized. Islets maintained at 1 mM glucose in tissue culture medium for 1 day lose the ability to release insulin in response to glucose and glucose metabolism is decreased 50-80%. The metabolism of dimethyl [1,4-14C]succinate and dimethyl [2,3-14C]succinate is decreased 50-60% in these incapacitated islets relative to islets maintained at 20 mM glucose. From the ratio of 14CO2 formed from dimethyl [1,4-14C]succinate, relative to that from dimethyl [2,3-14C]succinate, "acetate" ratios of 4.9-6.2 were calculated and from the ratio of 14CO2 formed from [2-14C]glucose, relative to that from [6-14C]glucose, "pyruvate ratios" of 1.6-1.7 were calculated. According to the 14CO2 ratios method, these ratios indicate that 53-66% of pyruvate derived from glucose enters the citric acid cycle via carboxylation and 34-47% enters via decarboxylation. Malic enzyme, which carboxylates pyruvate in the cytosol, was normal in islets maintained at 1 mM glucose. Previous work indicated that inhibition of glucose metabolism in islets maintained at low glucose is due to decreased net synthesis of the mitochondrial enzymes pyruvate dehydrogenase and pyruvate carboxylase [J. Biol. Chem. (1991) 266, 22392-22397], which decarboxylate and carboxylate pyruvate, respectively. Acetate (1 mM) but not pyruvate, when added to islets maintained at low glucose, increased dimethyl succinate metabolism to almost that of islets maintained at high glucose. This is consistent with a low amount of pyruvate dehydrogenase being unable to supply acetyl-CoA for condensation with oxalacetate (derived from succinate) and that the rate of the citric acid cycle could be enhanced by adding acetate which can bypass the reaction catalyzed by pyruvate dehydrogenase.