BACKGROUND: Ursolic acid (UA), a triterpenoid compound, is reported to have a glucose-lowering effect. However, the mechanisms are not fully understood. Adipose tissue is one of peripheral tissues that collectively control the circulating glucose levels. OBJECTIVE: The objective of the present study was to determine the effect and further the mechanism of action of UA in adipocytes. METHODS AND RESULTS: The 3T3-L1 preadipocytes were induced to differentiate and treated with different concentrations of UA. NBD-fluorescent glucose was used as the tracer to measure glucose uptake and Western blotting used to determine the expression and activity of proteins involved in glucose transport. It was found that 2.5, 5 and 10 µM of UA promoted glucose uptake in a dose-dependent manner (17%, 29% and... 35%, respectively). 10 µM UA-induced glucose uptake with insulin stimulation was completely blocked by the phosphatidylinositol (PI) 3-kinase (PI3K) inhibitor wortmannin (1 µM), but not by SB203580 (10 µM), the inhibitor of mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), or compound C (2.5 µM), the inhibitor of AMP-activated kinase (AMPK) inhibitor. Furthermore, the downstream protein activities of the PI3K pathway, phosphoinositide-dependent kinase (PDK) and phosphoinositide-dependent serine/threoninekinase (AKT) were increased by 10 µM of UA in the presence of insulin. Interestingly, the activity of AS160 and protein kinase C (PKC) and the expression of glucose transporter 4 (GLUT4) were stimulated by 10 µM of UA under either the basal or insulin-stimulated status. Moreover, the translocation of GLUT4 from cytoplasm to cell membrane was increased by UA but decreased when the PI3K inhibitor was applied. CONCLUSIONS: Our results suggest that UA stimulates glucose uptake in 3T3-L1 adipocytes through the PI3K pathway, providing important information regarding the mechanism of action of UA for its anti-diabetic effect.