Activation of an islet-specific immune response is an early yet essential step in autoimmune diabetes. The immune cells and antigen(s) involved in this early step and its anatomical site remain incompletely understood. To directly evaluate the site where islet-specific and diabetogenic lymphocytes are activated, we isolated lymphocytes from spleen and from pancreas-draining, gut-associated and subcutaneous lymph nodes of diabetic NOD mice and of young NOD mice, and transferred these into NOD scid/scid recipients devoid of endogenous islet-specific immune responses themselves. Although spleen lymphocytes from diabetic NOD mice induced diabetes more rapidly than lymphocytes from any other lymphoid tissue, spleen lymphocytes from young NOD donors were not superior to other lymphocytes from the same donors. At a donor-age of 6 weeks, the most-diabetogenic lymphocytes were found in pancreas-draining lymph node whereas gut-associated lymph nodes and the spleen were sources of intermediate diabetogenic activity. Lymphocytes from peripheral lymph nodes were only weakly diabetogenic at this age, and also remained the least efficient later. Surprisingly, lymphocytes isolated even from 3-week-old NOD mice had diabetogenic potential. However, such cells were almost exclusively found in gut-associated lymph nodes. This suggests that initial priming of diabetogenic cells takes place in the gut whereas pancreas-draining lymph nodes may serve as the site of amplification of the autoimmune response.