Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) is strongly inherited, but the major genes for this disease have been elusive. In contrast, early-onset, autosomal-dominant diabetes results from at least 5 loci, of which hepatocyte nuclear factor 1a (HNF1alpha or TCF1) is the most common cause. Mutations in HNF1alpha also cause later-onset diabetes in some Caucasian populations, but the role of these mutations has not been tested in African American populations. We used a variety of screening methods, including both single-strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) analysis and dideoxy fingerprint analysis, to search for mutations in 51 African American subjects with onset of diabetes before age 50 years. Potential mutations were confirmed by direct sequencing. We identified 21 different variants, of which 11 were unique to African Americans. Four mutations either altered the amino acid sequence (Gly52Ala and Gly574Ser) or were close to a splice site (intron 1 and intron 10). A 5-nucleotide insertion in intron 1 was present in both diabetic members of a small family, but Gly52Ala, Gly574Ser, and the intron 10 mutation did not segregate with diabetes. Gly574Ser was present in 2 large families and 5% of controls, all of which appeared to share the same common HNF1alpha haplotype. Surprisingly, radioactive SSCP analysis under 2 room-temperature conditions performed as well as methods using fluorescent labeling that were expected to be more sensitive. We conclude that in African American individuals under age 50, variation in the HNF1a gene is common but unlikely to be a significant cause of T2DM.