Insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) is a polygenic disease caused by progressive autoimmune infiltration (insulitis) of the pancreatic islets of Langerhan, culminating in the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells. Genome scans of families with diabetes suggest that multiple loci make incremental contributions to disease susceptibility. However, only the IDDM1 locus is well characterized, at a molecular and functional level, as alleleic variants of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II HLA-DQB1, DRB1, and DPB1 genes that mediate antigen presentation to T cells. In the nonobese diabetic (NOD) mouse model, the Idd1 locus was shown to be the orthologous MHC gene I-Ab. Inheritance of susceptibility alleles at IDDM1/Idd1 is insufficient for disease development in humans and NOD mice. However, the identities and functions of the remaining diabetes loci (Idd2-Idd19 in NOD mice) are largely undefined. A crucial limitation in previous genetic linkage studies of this disease has been reliance on a single complex phenotype-diabetes that displays low penetrance and is of limited utility for high-resolution genetic mapping. Using the NOD model, we have identified an early step in diabetes pathogenesis that behaves as a highly penetrant trait. We report that NOD-derived alleles at both the Idd5 and Idd13 loci regulate a T lymphocyte-dependent progression from a benign to a destructive stage of insulitis. Human chromosomal regions orthologous to the Idd5 and -13 intervals are also linked to diabetes risk, suggesting that conserved genes encoded at these loci are central regulators of disease pathogenesis. These data are the first to reveal a role for individual non-MHC Idd loci in a specific, critical step in diabetes pathogenesis-T cell recruitment to islet lesions driving destructive inflammation. Importantly, identification of intermediate phenotypes in complex disease pathogenesis provides the tools required to progress toward gene identification at these loci.