The AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is a heterotrimeric complex composed of a catalytic subunit (alpha) and two regulatory subunits (beta and gamma). Two isoforms of the catalytic subunit (alpha1 and alpha2) have been identified. We show here that the alpha1- and alpha2-containing complexes contribute approximately equally to total AMPK activity in rat liver. Furthermore, expression of alpha1 or alpha2 with beta and gamma in mammalian cells demonstrates that both complexes have equal specific activity measured with the SAMS peptide. Using variant peptides, however, we show that alpha1 and alpha2 exhibit slightly different substrate preferences, which suggest that the two isoforms could play different physiological roles within the cell.