The purpose of these studies was to determine whether glucose, the principal regulator of insulin biosynthesis in mammals, controls synthesis through alterations in levels of proinsulin mRNA in whole animals. Rats were starved for 3 days and then either refed or injected with glucose or saline for 24 h. Glucose injection raised plasma glucose levels equivalent to levels seen with refeeding but provided less than 20% of caloric replacement. Pancreatic RNA was extracted and the relative concentration of proinsulin mRNA was determined by blot hybridization with a cloned rat proinsulin cDNA probe. In starved animals proinsulin mRNA levels were 15-20% that of fed controls. Glucose injection produced a specific three- to fourfold increase in proinsulin mRNA levels relative to total pancreatic RNA, within 24 h. The effect was measurable 2 h after glucose injection and appeared largely complete by 12 h. Actinomycin D blocked the glucose-induced increase in proinsulin mRNA. These studies demonstrate effects of changes of plasma glucose on levels of proinsulin mRNA. Their rapidity of onset and large magnitude are comparable to effects of glucose on rates of insulin biosynthesis in isolated islets and suggest that insulin biosynthesis is regulated at least in part by levels of proinsulin mRNA.