Differential solute clearances were used to characterize glomerular function in 20 Pima Indians with noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) of less than 3 yr duration. 28 Pima Indians with normal glucose tolerance served as controls. In the diabetic group, the glomerular filtration rate (GFR, iothalamate clearance) exceeded the control value by 15% (140 +/- 6 vs. 122 +/- 5 ml/min, P less than 0.01). A corresponding 12% increase in renal plasma flow (RPF) was not statistically significant and did not account fully for the observed hyperfiltration, suggesting a concomitant elevation of the ultrafiltration pressure or coefficient. The median albumin excretion ratio in NIDDM exceeded control by almost twofold (10.1 vs. 5.8 mg/g creatinine), a trend which just failed to achieve statistical significance (P = 0.06). Fractional clearances of dextrans of broad size distribution were also elevated in diabetic subjects, significantly so for larger dextrans of between 48 and 60 A radius. A theoretical analysis of dextran transport through a heteroporous membrane revealed glomerular pores in NIDDM to be uniformly shifted towards pores of larger size than in controls. We conclude that an impairment of barrier size selectivity combined with high GFR elevates the filtered protein load in NIDDM of recent onset. We propose that enhanced transglomerular trafficking of protein may predispose to sclerosis of glomeruli in those Pima Indians with NIDDM who ultimately develop diabetic nephropathy.