Pancreatic beta cells and cell lines were used in the present study to test the hypothesis that the molecular mechanisms controlling exocytosis from neuronal cells may be used by the beta cell to regulate insulin secretion. Using specific antisera raised against an array of synaptic proteins (SNAREs) implicated in the control of synaptic vesicle fusion and exocytosis, we have identified the expression of several SNAREs in the islet beta cell lines, beta TC6-f7 and HIT-T15, as well as in pancreatic islets. The v-SNARE vesicle-associated membrane protein (VAMP)-2 but not VAMP-1 immunoreactive proteins were detected in beta TC6-f7 and HIT-T15 cells and pancreatic islets. In these islet-derived cell lines, this 18-kDa protein comigrated with rat brain synaptic vesicle VAMP-2, which was cleaved by Tetanus toxin (TeTx). Immunofluorescence confocal microscopy and electron microscopy localized the VAMP-2 to the cytoplasmic side of insulin containing secretory granule membrane. In streptolysin O permeabilized HIT-T15 cells, TeTx inhibited Ca2+-evoked insulin release by 83 +/- 4.3%, which correlated well to the cleavage of VAMP-2. The beta cell lines were also shown to express a second vesicle (v)-SNARE, cellubrevin. The proposed neuronal target (t)-membrane SNAREs, SNAP-25, and syntaxin isoforms 1-4 were also detected by Western blotting. The beta cell 25-kDa SNAP-25 protein and syntaxin isoforms 1-3 were specifically cleaved by botulinum A and C toxins, respectively, as observed with the brain isoforms. These potential t-SNARES were localized by immunofluorescence microscopy primarily to the plasma membrane in beta cell lines as well as in islet beta cells. To determine the specific identity of the immunoreactive syntaxin-2 and -3 isoforms and to explore the possibility that these beta cells express the putative Ca2+-sensing molecule synaptotagmin III, RT-PCR was performed on the beta cell lines. These studies confirmed that betaTC6-F7 cells express syntaxin-2 isoforms, 2 and 2', but not 2'' and express syntaxin-3. They further demonstrate the expression of synaptotagmin III. DNA sequence analysis revealed that rat and mouse beta cell syntaxins 2, 2' and synaptotagmin III are highly conserved at the nucleotide and predicted amino acid levels (95-98%). The presence of VAMP-2, nSec/Munc-18, SNAP-25 and syntaxin family of proteins, along with synaptotagmin III in the islet cells and in beta cell lines provide evidence that neurons and beta cells share similar molecular mechanisms for Ca2+-regulated exocytosis. The inhibition of Ca2+-evoked insulin secretion by the proteolytic cleavage of HIT-T15 cell VAMP-2 supports the hypothesis that these proteins play an integral role in the control of insulin exocytosis.