Low birth weight is associated with an increased risk in adult life of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease (CVD). The fetal insulin hypothesis postulates that genes involving insulin resistance could effect birth weight and disease in later life (Hattersley, 1999). Besides insulin, there is extensive evidence that insulin-like growth factor-I and -II (IGF-I, IGF-II) play an important role in fetal growth. We hypothesized that minor genetic variation in the IGF-I gene could influence pre- and postnatal growth. Three microsatellite markers located in the IGF-I gene in 124 short children (height < -1.88 SDS) who were born small for gestational age (SGA) and their parents were studied. SGA was defined as both a birth weight and birth length below -1.88 SDS for gestational age. Two polymorphic markers showed transmission disequilibrium. Allele 191 of the IGF1.PCR1 marker was transmitted more frequently from parent to child (chi(2) = 4.8 and p = 0.02) and allele 198 of the 737/738 marker was transmitted less frequently from parent to child (chi(2)= 4.5 and p = 0.03). Children carrying the 191-allele had significantly lower IGF-1 levels than children not carrying this allele (-1.1 SDS vs. -0.05 SDS; p = 0.03). Also, head circumference SDS remained smaller in children with allele 191 compared to children without allele 191 (-2.1 SDS vs. -0.9 SDS; p = 0.003). Our results show that genetically determined low IGF-I levels may lead to a reduction in birth weight, length and head circumference and to persistent short stature and small head circumference in later life (proportionate small). Since low IGF-I levels are associated with type 2 diabetes and CVD, we propose that the IGF-I gene may provide a link between low birth weight and such diseases in later life.