We utilized clostridial toxins (with known specificities for inhibition of GTPases) to ascertain the contribution of candidate GTPases in physiologic insulin secretion from beta cells. Exposure of normal rat islets or isolated beta (HIT-T15) cells to Clostridium difficile toxins A and B catalyzed the glucosylation (and thereby the inactivation) of Rac, Cdc42, and Rho endogenous to beta cells; concomitantly, either toxin reduced glucose- or potassium-induced insulin secretion from rat islets and HIT cells. Treatment of beta cells with Clostridium sordellii lethal toxin (LT; which modified only Ras, Rap, and Rac) also reduced glucose- or potassium-induced secretion. However, clostridial toxin C3-exoenzyme (which ADP-ribosylates and inactivates only Rho) was without any effect on either glucose- or potassium-induced insulin secretion. These data suggest that Cdc42, Rac, Ras, and/or Rap (but not Rho) may be needed for glucose- or potassium-mediated secretion. The effects of these toxins appear to be specific on stimulus-secretion coupling, since no difference in metabolic viability (assessed colorimetrically by quantitating the conversion of the tetrazolium salt into a formazan in a reduction reaction driven by nutrient metabolism) was demonstrable between control and toxin (A or LT)-treated beta cells. Toxin (A or LT) treatment also did not alter glucose- or potassium-mediated rises in cytosolic free calcium concentrations ([Ca2+]i), suggesting that these GTPases are involved in steps distal to elevations in [Ca2+]i. Recent findings indicate that the carboxyl methylation of Cdc42 is stimulated by only glucose, whereas that of Rap (Kowluru et al., J Clin Invest 98: 540-555, 1996) and Rac (present study) are regulated by glucose or potassium. Together, these findings provide direct evidence, for the first time, that the Rho subfamily of GTPases plays a key regulatory role(s) in insulin secretion, and they suggest that Cdc42 may be required for early steps in glucose stimulation of insulin release, whereas Rap and/or Rac may be required for a later step(s) in the stimulus-secretion coupling cascade (i.e. Ca2+-induced exocytosis of insulin).