The pancreatic beta cell normally maintains a stable balance among insulin secretion, insulin production, and insulin degradation to keep optimal intracellular stores of the hormone. Elevated levels of FFA markedly enhance insulin secretion; however, the effects of FFA on insulin production and intracellular stores remain unclear. In this study, twofold elevation in total circulating FFA effected by infusion of lard oil and heparin into rats for 6 h under normoglycemic conditions resulted in a marked elevation of circulating insulin levels evident after 4 h, and a 30% decrease in pancreatic insulin content after a 6-h infusion in vivo. Adding 125 muM oleate to isolated rat pancreatic islets cultured with 5.6 mM glucose caused a 50% fall in their insulin content over 24 h, coupled with a marked enhancement of basal insulin secretion. Both effects of fatty acid were blocked by somatostatin. In contrast to the stimulatory effects of oleate on insulin secretion, glucose-induced proinsulin biosynthesis was inhibited by oleate up to 24 h, but was unaffected thereafter. This result was in spite of a two- to threefold oleate-induced increase in preproinsulin mRNA levels, underscoring the importance of translational regulation of proinsulin biosynthesis in maintaining beta cell insulin stores. Collectively, these results suggest that chronically elevated FFA contribute to beta cell dysfunction in the pathogenesis of NIDDM by significantly increasing the basal rate of insulin secretion. This increase in turn results in a decrease in the beta cell's intracellular stores that cannot be offset by commensurate FFA induction of proinsulin biosynthesis.