Exogenous purified rabbit skeletal-muscle glycogen synthase was used as a substrate for adipose-tissue phosphoprotein phosphatase from fed and starved rats in order to (1) compare the relationship between phosphate released from, and the kinetic changes imparted to, the substrate and (2) ascertain if decreases in adipose-tissue phosphatase activity account for the apparent decreased activation of endogenous glycogen synthase from starved as compared with fed rats. Muscle glycogen synthase was phosphorylated with [gamma-(32)P]ATP and cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase alone, or in combination with a cyclic AMP-independent protein kinase, to 1.7 or 3mol of phosphate per subunit. Adipose-tissue phosphatase activity determined with phosphorylated skeletal-muscle glycogen synthase as substrate was decreased by 35-60% as a consequence of starvation. This decrease in phosphatase activity had little effect on the capacity of adipose-tissue extracts to activate exogenous glycogen synthase (i.e. to increase the glucose 6-phosphate-independent enzyme activity), although there were marked differences in the activation profiles for the two exogenous substrates. Glycogen synthase phosphorylated to 1.7mol of phosphate per subunit was activated rapidly by adipose-tissue extracts from either fed or starved rats, and activation paralleled enzyme dephosphorylation. Glycogen synthase phosphorylated to 3mol of phosphate per subunit was activated more slowly and after a lag period, since release of the first mol of phosphate did not increase the glucose 6-phosphate-independent activity of the enzyme. These patterns of enzyme activation were similar to those observed for the endogenous adipose-tissue glycogen synthase(s): the glucose 6-phosphate-independent activity of the endogenous enzyme from fed rats increased rapidly during incubation, whereas that of starved rats, like that of the more highly phosphorylated muscle enzyme, increased only very slowly after a lag period. The observations made here suggest that (1) changes in glucose 6-phosphate-independent glycogen synthase activity are at best only a qualitative measure of phosphoprotein phosphatase activity and (2) the decrease in glycogen synthase phosphatase activity during starvation is not sufficient to explain the differential glycogen synthase activation in adipose tissue from fed and starved rats. However, alterations in the phosphorylation state of glycogen synthase combined with decreased activity of phosphoprotein phosphatase, both as a consequence of starvation, could explain the apparent markedly decreased enzyme activation.