Glucagon-like peptide 1(7-36)amide (GLP-1) is currently under investigation as a possible tool in the treatment of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. In addition to enhancing nutrient-stimulated insulin release, the peptide also favors glycogen synthesis and glucose use in liver, muscle, and adipose tissue. GLP-1 also activates glycogen synthase a in hepatocytes from both normal and diabetic rats. In the present study, the kinetic aspects of such an activation were investigated in hepatocytes from normal rats and from animals rendered diabetic induced by injection of streptozotocin, either in the adult age (insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus model) or in days 1 or 5 after birth (non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus models). GLP-1 increased, in a dose-dependent manner, glycogen synthase a activity in the hepatocytes from all groups studied. The activation of the enzyme reached a steady state within 1 min exposure to GLP-1, which, at 10(-12) M, caused a half-maximal activation. When comparing fed vs. overnight-starved normal rats, a somewhat lower basal activity of glycogen synthase a in fasted animals (P < 0.05) coincided with a greater relative increment in reaction velocity in response to GLP-1. The basal activity of glycogen synthase a and the relative extent of its inhibition by glucagon or activation by insulin and GLP-1 were modulated by the extracellular concentration of D-glucose. The activation of glycogen synthase a by either insulin or GLP-1 resulted not solely in an increase in maximal velocity but also in a decrease in affinity of the enzyme for uridine diphosphate-glucose; in diabetic animals, the capacity of insulin or GLP-1 to increase the maximal velocity and Michaelis-Menten constant were less marked than in normal rats. In conclusion, this study indicates that the GLP-1-induced activation of glycogen synthase a displays attributes of rapidity, sensitivity, and nutritional dependency that are well suited for both participation in the physiological regulation of enzyme activity and therapeutic purpose.