Pancreatic islets are known to respond to a raise of the glucose concentration with Ca2+ -induced 2-3-min pulses of insulin release. The reports of cyclic variations of circulating insulin in the fasting state made it important to explore whether insulin release is also pulsatile in the absence of stimulated entry of Ca2+. Individual pancreatic islets were isolated from a local colony of ob/ob mice and perifused under conditions allowing dual wavelength recordings of the cytoplasmic Ca2+ concentration ([Ca2+]i) with fura-2 and measurements of insulin with ELISA technique. At 3 mM of glucose, [Ca2+]i remained at a stable low level, but insulin was released in pulses with a frequency of 0.41+/-0.02 min-1, determined by Fourier transformation of original and autocorrelated data. Pulses of basal insulin release were also seen when glucose was omitted and 1 microM clonidine or 400 microM diazoxide was added to a glucose-free medium. The results indicate that pulsatile insulin release can be generated in the absence of stimulated entry of Ca2+. A tentative explanation for this phenomenon is inherent fluctuations in the ATP production of the beta cells.