We tested effects of long-term exposure of pancreatic islets to free fatty acids (FFA) in vitro on B cell function. Islets isolated from male Sprague-Dawley rats were exposed to palmitate (0.125 or 0.25 mM), oleate (0.125 mM), or octanoate (2.0 mM) during culture. Insulin responses were subsequently tested in the absence of FFA. After a 48-h exposure to FFA, insulin secretion during basal glucose (3.3 mM) was several-fold increased. However, during stimulation with 27 mM glucose, secretion was inhibited by 30-50% and proinsulin biosynthesis by 30-40%. Total protein synthesis was similarly affected. Conversely, previous palmitate did not impair alpha-ketoisocaproic acid (5 mM)-induced insulin release. Induction and reversibility of the inhibitory effect on glucose-induced insulin secretion required between 6 and 24 h. Addition of the carnitine palmitoyltransferase I inhibitor etomoxir (1 microM) partially reversed (by > 50%) FFA-associated decrease in secretory as well as proinsulin biosynthetic responses to 27 mM glucose. The inhibitory effect of previous palmitate was similar when co-culture was performed with 5.5, 11, or 27 mM glucose. Exposure to palmitate or oleate reduced the production of 14CO2 from D-[U-14C]glucose, and of 14CO2 from D-[3,4-14C]-glucose, both effects being reversed by etomoxir. Conclusions: long-term exposure to FFA inhibits glucose-induced insulin secretion and biosynthesis probably through a glucose fatty acid cycle.