Previous studies indicated that amino acids may activate the protein kinase activity of the target of rapamycin (TOR) and thereby augment and/or mimic the effects of insulin on protein synthesis, p70(S6k) phosphorylation, and multicellular clustering in adipocytes. To identify the individual amino acids responsible for these effects, the present study focused on the TOR substrate and translational repressor 4E-BP1. A complete mixture of amino acids stimulated the phosphorylation of 4E-BP1, decreasing its association with eukaryotic initiation factor eIF-4E. Studies on subsets of amino acids and individual amino acids showed that L-leucine was the amino acid responsible for most of the effects on 4E-BP1 phosphorylation; however, the presence of other amino acids was required to observe a maximal effect. The stimulatory effect of leucine was stereospecific and not mimicked by other branched chain amino acids but was mimicked by the leucine metabolite alpha-ketoisocaproate (alpha-KIC). The effect of alpha-KIC, but not leucine, was attenuated by the transaminase inhibitor (aminooxy)acetate. The latter result indicates that the effects of alpha-KIC required its conversion to leucine. Half-maximal stimulation of 4E-BP1 phosphorylation occurred at approximately 430 microM; therefore, the response was linear within the range of circulating concentrations of leucine found in various nutritional states.