While it is well established that people with non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus have defects in both insulin secretion and action, the relative contribution of each to glucose intolerance is not known. Therefore, nondiabetic (lean and obese) and non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus subjects were studied on two occasions. On each occasion, insulin secretion was inhibited with somatostatin and glucose was infused in a pattern and amount that mimicked the systemic delivery rate normally observed after ingestion of 50 g of glucose. Insulin also was infused so as to mimic postprandial insulin profiles observed in separate groups of diabetic and nondiabetic subjects after food ingestion. Glucose turnover was measured using the isotope dilution method. A delayed pattern of insulin delivery (i.e., a "diabetic" insulin profile) led to higher (P < 0.05) glucose concentrations in all groups; however, the effects were transient, resulting in only a modest increase in the integrated glycemic responses. An isolated defect in insulin action had little effect on peak glucose concentration; however, it prolonged the duration of hyperglycemia, leading to a 2.5-4.2-fold increase (P < 0.05) in the integrated glycemic response. A combined defect in the pattern of insulin secretion and action was additive rather than synergistic. Both defects caused hyperglycemia by altering suppression of endogenous glucose release and stimulation of glucose disposal. Whereas obese diabetic and nondiabetic subjects had comparable defects in glucose clearance, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus subjects also had defects in hepatic insulin action. Thus, abnormalities in the pattern of insulin secretion and action alone or in combination impair glucose tolerance. An isolated defect in insulin action has a more pronounced and prolonged effect than does an isolated change in the pattern of insulin secretion. Hepatic and extrahepatic insulin resistance results in marked and sustained hyperglycemia.