All pancreatic β-cells are identified by specific morphological characteristics. Similarity in microscopic features is not necessarily associated with identity in functional properties. In vitro studies on isolated rat β-cells have indicated intercellular differences in the threshold for glucose-induced shifts in metabolic redox state. The cellular heterogeneity in glucose sensitivity results in a dose-dependent recruitment of glucose-exposed β-cells into biosynthetic and secretory activities. The molecular basis of this diversity is not known. Indirect evidence supports the concept that the in situ pancreatic β-cell population is also composed of functionally diverse subpopulations. The heterogeneity in glucose responsiveness is expected to create subpopulations of β-cells with either constant, fluctuating, or occasional glucose-dependent functions; whether any subpopulation is preferentially responsive to other regulatory factors and/or committed to other activities is unknown. Morphological markers may help identify β-cell subpopulations in situ and quantify their size in conditions known to affect total β-cell mass or function. The concept of a functionally heterogeneous β-cell population influences views on the role of pancreatic β-cells in health and disease.

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