Objective: The reduction in insulin secretory capacity and β-cell mass has been attributed, at least partially, to lipotoxicity, which may contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. Chronic free fatty acids (FFA) exposure impairs pancreatic β-cell function and induces β-cell apoptosis. This study is to elucidate the underlying molecular mechanisms.Research design and methods: We exposed INS-1E pancreatic β-cell line to palmitate or oleate, and measured the glucose stimulated insulin secretion (GSIS). The effect of FFA on sterol regulatory element-binding protein (SREBP)-1c lipogenic pathway, and expression of genes involved in β-cell functions, including AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase), UCP-2 (uncoupling protein-2), IRS-2 (insulin receptor substrate-2), PDX-1 (pancreatic duodenal homeobox-1), GLUT-2 (glucose transporter-2) and B cell lymphoma/leukaemia-2 (Bcl-2) were investigated. Apoptosis of these exposed cells was determined by MitoCapture, Annexin V-Cy3 or terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick-end labeling assay. Cell lipid accumulation was measured by oil red O staining or TG extraction. Also SREBP-1c expression knockdown were used.Results: FFA treatment resulted in SREBP-1c overexpression, impaired GSIS, lipid accumulation, apoptosis of INS-1E cells. In addition, the expression of lipogenic genes and UCP-2 were upregulated, but AMPK, IRS-2, PDX-1, GLUT-2 and Bcl-2 were downregulated in the exposed cells. However, these lipotoxic effects of FFA were largely prevented by induction of a SREBP-1c small interfering RNA.Conclusions: These data suggest a strong correlation between FFA treatment and SREBP-1c activation in INS-1E cells. SREBP-1c might be a major factor responsible for β-cell lipotoxicity, and SREBP-1c knockdown could protect INS-1E cells from lipotoxicity, which is implicating a therapeutic potential for treating diabetes related to lipotoxicity. © 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.