The following sequence of events is thought to underlie the stimulation of insulin release by hypoglycaemic sulphonylureas. Interaction of the drugs with a high-affinity binding site (sulphonylurea receptor) in the B-cell membrane leads to closure of ATP-sensitive K+ channels, depolarization, opening of voltage-dependent Ca2+ channels, Ca2+ influx and rise in cytoplasmic [Ca2+]i. Recent experiments using permeabilized islet cells or measuring changes in B-cell membrane capacitance have suggested that sulphonylureas can increase insulin release by a mechanism independent of a change in [Ca2+]i. This provocative hypothesis was tested here with intact mouse islets. When B-cells were strongly depolarized by 60 mM K+, [Ca2+]i was increased and insulin secretion stimulated. Under these conditions, tolbutamide did not further increase [Ca2+]i or insulin release, whether it was applied before or after high K+, and whether the concentration of glucose was 3 or 15 mM. This contrasts with the ability of forskolin and phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) to increase release in the presence of high K+. Tolbutamide also failed to increase insulin release from islets depolarized with barium (substituted for extracellular Ca2+) or with arginine in the presence of high glucose. Glibenclamide and its non-sulphonylurea moiety meglitinide were also without effect on insulin release from already depolarized B-cells. In the absence of extracellular Ca2+, acetylcholine induced monophasic peaks of [Ca2+]i and insulin secretion which were both unaffected by tolbutamide. Insulin release from permeabilized islet cells was stimulated by raising free Ca2+ (between 0.1 and 23 microM). This effect was not affected by tolbutamide and inconsistently increased by glibenclamide. In conclusion, the present study does not support the proposal that hypoglycaemic sulphonylureas can increase insulin release even when they do not also raise [Ca2+]i in B-cells.