1. We have investigated the mechanism by which L-arginine stimulates membrane depolarization, an increase of intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i) and insulin secretion in pancreatic beta-cells. 2. L-Arginine failed to affect beta-cell metabolism, as monitored by NAD(P)H autofluorescence. 3. L-Arginine produced a dose-dependent increase in [Ca2+]i, which was dependent on membrane depolarization and extracellular calcium. 4. The cationic amino acids L-ornithine, L-lysine, L-homoarginine (which is not metabolized) and NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NMMA, a nitric oxide synthase inhibitor) produced [Ca2+]i responses similar to that produced by L-arginine. The neutral nitric oxide synthase inhibitors NG-nitro-L-arginine (L-NNA) and N omega-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NAME) also increased [Ca2+]i. D-Arginine was ineffective. 5. L-Arginine did not affect whole-cell Ca2+ currents or ATP-sensitive K+ currents, but produced an inward current that was carried by the amino acid. 6. The reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction demonstrated the presence of messenger RNA for the murine cationic amino acid transporters mCAT2A and mCAT2B within the beta-cell. 7. L-Arginine did not affect beta-cell exocytosis as assayed by changes in cell capacitance. 8. Our data suggest that L-arginine elevates [Ca2+]i and stimulates insulin secretion as a consequence of its electrogenic transport into the beta-cell. This uptake is mediated by the mCAT2A transporter.