Human beta cells can be maintained in serum-free culture at 6 mmol/liter glucose, with 80% cell recovery and preserved glucose-inducible functions after 1 wk. Between 0 and 10 mmol/liter, glucose dose-dependently increases the number of beta cells in active protein synthesis (15% at 0 mmol/liter glucose, 60% at 5 mmol/liter, and 82% at 10 mmol/liter), while lacking such an effect in islet non-beta cells (> 75% activated irrespective of glucose concentrations). As in rat beta cells, this intercellular difference in glucose sensitivity determines the dose-response curves during acute glucose stimulation of human beta cells. During 2-h incubations, human beta cells synthesize 7 fmol insulin/10(3) cells at 0 mmol/liter glucose, 20 fmol at 5 mmol/liter, and 31 fmol at 10 mmol/liter. Culture at higher (10 or 20 mmol/liter) glucose does not affect beta cell recovery but decreases by 50-85% the net effect of glucose upon insulin synthesis and release. These reduced responses to glucose are not caused by diminished cellular activities but are the consequence of a shift of beta cells to a state of sustained activation. The presence of more activated cells at low glucose eliminates glucose-dependent cell recruitment as a mechanism for adjusting beta cell responses to acute variations in glucose concentration. It leads to elevated basal biosynthetic (3-fold) and secretory (10-fold) activities, and, hence, to a 4-fold reduction in the beta cell insulin content and the amount of insulin released at maximal glucose stimulation. Prolonged exposure of human beta cells to high glucose can thus lead to a loss of their glucose regulation as a consequence of sustained cellular activation, without signs of glucose-induced toxicity or desensitization.