This study was undertaken to investigate the effects of growth hormone (GH) on the in vitro maturation of the metabolism of fetal rat islets. For this purpose fetal islets were obtained from 21-day-old fetuses by mild collagenase digestion of the pancreas and cultured in RPMI 1640 supplemented with 10% fetal calf serum. After one day the medium was changed and supplemented with 1% fetal calf serum with or without GH (1 μg/ml, human recombinant) and the islets cultured for another two days. Islets were then studied with regard to insulin secretion, (pro)insulin and total protein biosynthesis, glucose utilization and oxidation, thymidine incorporation, insulin and DNA contents and the contents of mRNAs for either insulin, adenine nucleotide translocator or cytochrome b. In addition, the activities of glucose phosphorylating enzymes and succinate-cytochrome c reductase were measured. Islets treated with GH showed increased insulin secretion in response to glucose, increased rates of glucose oxidation and utilization, increased thymidine incorporation and increased activities of succinate cytochrome c reductase and glucose phosphorylation at high glucose concentrations. There were, however, no changes in (pro)insulin and total protein biosynthesis, contents of insulin and DNA or the contents of any of the mRNAs. These combined data show that fetal β-cells are sensitive to growth hormone with respect to glucose metabolism, insulin release and DNA replication. The increased rates of islet glucose phosphorylation may reflect glucokinase activity and explain part of the increased insulin responsiveness to glucose of the fetal rat β-cell. These observations suggest that GH is of physiological significance for the maturation of the fetal β-cell.