Clonal pancreatic beta-cell lines have been used widely for the study of the factors involved in the regulation of apoptosis but it has not been firmly established that the response of normal islets mirrors that found in transformed beta-cells. In the present work, the role of pertussis toxin (Ptx)-sensitive G-proteins in the control of beta-cell apoptosis was studied in isolated rat and human islets of Langerhans and compared with the clonal beta-cell line, RINm5F. Annexin-V and deoxycarboxyfluoroscein diacetate staining was used to identify viable, apoptotic and necrotic cells directly, under fluorescence illumination. Treatment of human and rat islet cells with the G-protein activator fluoride (NaF; 5 mM) caused a marked increase in apoptosis that was further potentiated in islets pretreated with Ptx. The tyrosine kinase inhibitor genistein (100 microM) also increased islet cell apoptosis and the combination of 100 microM genistein and 5 mM NaF did not lead to any diminution of the apoptotic response. This latter effect was quite different from that seen in RINm5F cells where the combination of 100 microM genistein and 5 mM NaF resulted in much less apoptosis than was observed with either agent alone. In islets treated with a lower concentration of genistein (25 microM; that did not, itself, increase cell death), the drug attenuated NaF-induced apoptosis and also blocked the enhancement mediated by Ptx. These results revealed that human (and rat) islets are equipped with a Ptx-sensitive pathway that may be regulated by tyrosine phosphorylation and is anti-apoptotic. However, they also define conditions under which marked differences in response between RINm5F cells and normal islets were observed and they suggest that care should be taken when extrapolating data obtained with clonal cell lines to the situation in normal islet cells.