Up-regulation of maternal islet function is essential to accommodate the increased demand for insulin during pregnancy. Previously, we suggested that lactogenic activity regulates islet function during pregnancy. However, this hypothesis was based on the effect of homologous PRLs on islets, since the homologous placental lactogens (or islets) were unavailable. In this study we examine the direct effects of homologous placental lactogens (PL), PRL, and GH on insulin secretion and B-cell division in rat, mouse, and human islets in vitro. Neonatal rat islets were cultured for 8 days in the presence of 0-1000 ng/ml rat PL-I (rPL-I), rPRL, or rGH. Media were changed daily, and the insulin concentration was determined. rPL-I and rPRL (500 ng/ml) treatment resulted in a 2-fold increase in insulin secretion. rGH (1000 ng/ml) elicited a 30% increase in insulin secretion. Similarly, cell replication, as indicated by BrdU incorporation into B-cells, was increased 4-fold in the presence of rPL-I and rPRL. The ED50 for insulin secretion and 5'-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine (BrdU) incorporation was 70 ng/ml for rPL-I and 150 ng/ml for rPRL. Similarly, in adult rat islets, insulin secretion was increased 1.6-fold, and B-cell replication increased 3-fold in the presence of the lactogenic hormones. Neonatal mouse islets were cultured for 8 days in the presence of 500 ng/ml mouse (m) PL-I, mPL-II, mPRL, or mGH. mPL-I, mPL-II, and mPRL treatment resulted in a 2-fold increase in insulin secretion. mGH elicited a 30% increase in insulin secretion. BrdU incorporation into B-cells was increased 3-fold in the presence of mPL-I and mPRL and 2-fold in the presence of mPL-II. Adult human islets were cultured for 8 days in the presence of 1 microgram/ml human (h) PL, hPRL, or hGH. For human islets isolated from six pancreata obtained from females, hPL (138 +/- 10%), hPRL (133 +/- 9%), and hGH (117 +/- 3%) significantly increased insulin secretion compared to that from control islets. This study compares the direct effects among homologous PLs, PRLs, and GHs on insulin secretion and B-cell division in rat, mouse, and human islets. The results indicate that placental lactogen directly regulates islet function in several species and is probably the principal hormone responsible for the increased islet function observed during normal pregnancy.