Extracellular matrix (ECM) has been reported to enhance epithelial cell attachment and proliferation as well as to induce differentiation in vitro. In an attempt to determine the benefits of culturing pancreatic islet cells on ECM, we studied the morphological and functional patterns of rat islet cells and an insulin-secreting tumor cell line. ECM enhanced islet cell attachment and proliferation when compared to plastic, as suggested by a higher specific activity of DNA synthesis and a higher mitotic index. Cells on ECM were heterogeneous in size and insulin content. They showed extended areas of confluence. Cultures on plastic demonstrated an organisation in clusters and low mitotic activity. However, ECM did not allow for reconstitution of an islet-like structure. When compared to plastic, an initial decrease in basal and stimulated insulin secretion per million cells was observed on ECM, but B-cell activity was restored after 6 days of culture. Glucagon and somatostatin secretion were similar on both substrates. These data suggest that ECM enhances markedly islet cells attachment and proliferation, as well as long-term culture maintenance.