In humans, type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) has a higher incidence in males compared to females, a phenotype recapitulated by many rodent models. While the sex difference in insulin sensitivity partially accounts for this phenomenon, hitherto uncharacterized differences in pancreatic β-cell insulin release strongly contribute. Here, we show that stepwise increase in extracellular glucose concentration (2, 5, 7.5, 10, 15, 20 mM) induced electrical activity in β cells of both sexes with similar glucose sensitivity (female, EC50 = 9.45 ± 0.15 mM; male, EC50 = 9.42 ± 0.16 mM). However, female β cells’ resting membrane potential (RMP) and inter-spike potential (IP) were significantly higher compared to males (e.g., at 15 mM glucose: male RMP = −82.7 ± 6.3, IP = −74.3 ± 6.8 mV; female RMP = −50.0 ± 7.1, IP = −41.2 ± 7.3 mV). Females also showed higher frequency of trains of action potential (AP; at 10 mM glucose: male F = 1.13 ± 0.15 trains/min; female F = 1.78 ± 0.25 trains/min) and longer AP-burst duration (e.g., at 10 mM glucose: male, 241 ± 30.8 ms; female, 419 ± 60.2 ms). The higher RMP in females reduced the voltage-gated calcium channel (CaV) availability by ∼60%. This explains the paradoxical observation that, despite identical CaV expression levels and higher electrical activity, the islet Ca2+ transients were smaller in females compared to males. Interestingly, the different RMPs are not caused by altered KATP, TASK, or TALK K+ currents. However, stromatoxin-1–sensitive KV2.1 K+ current amplitude was almost double in males (IK = 130.93 ± 7.05 pA/pF) compared to females (IK = 75.85 ± 11.3 pA/pF) when measured at +80 mV. Our results are in agreement with previous findings showing that KV2.1 genetic deletion or pharmacological block leads to higher insulin release and β-cell survival. Therefore, we propose the sex-specific expression of KV2.1 to be the mechanism underlying the observed sexual dimorphism in insulin release and the incidence of T2DM.

This work was supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) grants P31434 and DOC30-B30.

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