Type 1 diabetes results from autoimmune destruction of the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells. The insulin gene (INS) is also expressed in human thymus, an ectopic expression site likely involved in immune tolerance. The IDDM2 diabetes susceptibility locus maps to a minisatellite composed of a variable number of tandem repeats situated 0.5 kb upstream of INS. Chromosomes carrying the protective long INS variable number of tandem repeats alleles (class III) produce higher levels of thymic INS mRNA than those with the predisposing, short class I alleles. However, complete silencing of thymic INS transcripts from the class III chromosome was found in a small proportion of heterozygous human thymus samples. We hypothesized that the specific class III alleles found on these chromosomes silence rather than enhance thymic insulin expression. To test the prediction that these alleles are predisposing, we developed a DNA fingerprinting method for detecting two putative "silencing" alleles found in two thymus samples (S1, S2). In a set of 287 diabetic children and their parents we found 13 alleles matching the fingerprint of the S1 or S2 alleles. Of 18 possible transmissions, 12 of the S1-S2 alleles were transmitted to the diabetic offspring, a frequency of 0.67, significantly higher than the 0.38 seen in the remaining 142 class III alleles; P = 0.025. This confirms our prediction and represents an additional level of correlation between thymic insulin and diabetes susceptibility, which supports a thymic enhancer effect of the INS variable number of tandem repeats as the mechanism of IDDM2 and refines the contribution of IDDM2 genotyping to diabetes risk assessment.