The diabetic Chinese hamster is a well-established animal model for NIDDM with a defective glucose-induced insulin secretory response. In the pancreas of nondiabetic hamsters, the GLUT2 glucose transporter was localized in the plasma membrane of insulin-positive beta cells. At variance with the rat, immunoreactivity was also detected in the cytoplasm. Other islet cell types were not GLUT2 positive. GLUT2 immunoreactivity was already significantly reduced in beta cells from mildly diabetic animals in spite of a normal insulin immunoreactivity. In severely diabetic animals the majority of the beta cells had lost GLUT2 immunostaining. This observation was confirmed in a Western blot analysis of the GLUT2 protein in isolated pancreatic islets. Only beta cells that were densely immunostained for insulin were still GLUT2 positive. However, around 40% of the beta cells devoid of GLUT2 immunoreactivity were still insulin immunoreactive. Thus, the loss of GLUT2 immunoreactivity, which is an important component of the glucose recognition apparatus of the pancreatic beta cell, is an early indicator of beta cell dysfunction before the development of degenerative lesions or the loss of insulin immunoreactivity. GLUT2 loss may be important in the deterioration of glucose-induced insulin secretion in the diabetic Chinese hamster.