Intact mitochondria and inverted submitochondrial vesicles were prepared from the liver of fed, starved (48 h) and streptozotocin-diabetic rats in order to characterize carnitine palmitoyltransferase kinetics and malonyl-CoA sensitivity in situ. In intact mitochrondria, both starved and diabetic rats exhibited increased V(max.), increased K(m) for palmitoyl-CoA, and decreased sensitivity to malonyl-CoA inhibition. Inverted submitochondrial vesicles also showed increased V(max.) with starvation and diabetes, with no change in K(m) for either palmitoyl-CoA or carnitine. Inverted vesicles were uniformly less sensitive to malonyl-CoA regardless of treatment, and diabetes resulted in a further decrease in sensitivity. In part, differences in the response of carnitine palmitoyltransferase to starvation and diabetes may reside in differences in the membrane environment, as observed with Arrhenius plots, and the relation of enzyme activity and membrane fluidity. In all cases, whether rats were fed, starved or diabetic, and whether intact or inverted vesicles were examined, increasing membrane fluidity was associated with increasing activity. Malonyl-CoA was found to produce a decrease in intact mitochondrial membrane fluidity in the fed state, particularly at pH 7.0 or less. No effect was observed in intact mitochondria from starved or diabetic rats, or in inverted vesicles from any of the treatment groups. Through its effect on membrane fluidity, malonyl-CoA could regulate carnitine palmitoyltransferase activity on both surfaces of the inner membrane through an interaction with only the outer surface.