Studies of individual cell types in the islets of Langerhans are complicated by the cells' functional coupling by gap junctions and paracrine interaction. Access to purified alpha and beta cells is therefore desirable. We present a simplified and optimized method for fluorescence-activated cell sorting of endocrine pancreatic rat islets. For dispersion of the islets, dispase was superior to trypsin, as the number of vital single cells was higher (1·1 ± 0·1 × 103 vs 0·6 ± 0·1 × 103/islet, P<0·05). The purity of the sorted cells was 96·7 ± 1·2% for the non-beta cells and 97·8 ± 0·6% for the beta cells (numbers in percentages of endocrine cells). In culture, isolated beta cells, non-beta cells and mixtures of beta and non-beta cells formed aggregates, but not at low temperature (4 °C) and not in medium with low serum content (2%). Finally, in pure beta cell aggregates, glucose stimulated changes in cytoplasmic free Ca2+ concentration although both glucose- and arginine-induced insulin secretion was much reduced. We conclude that alpha cells are necessary for insulin secretion but not for glucose sensing.