We studied the lesions of global glomerular sclerosis and arteriolar hyalinosis in 43 (29 females) insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) patients whose creatinine clearance (CCr) was greater than or equal to 45 ml/min/1.73 m2 and whose renal biopsies had at least 20 glomeruli available for study. These patients, ages 17 to 55 years, had IDDM for 7 to 32 (20 +/- 6, means +/- SD) years. CCr ranged from 47 to 139 (91 +/- 25) ml/min/1.73 m2 and urinary albumin excretion (UAE) from 5 to 3386 (median = 127) mg/24 hrs. Eighteen patients were hypertensive. Thus, these patients represented a broad clinical range from normal renal function through overt diabetic nephropathy. The percent of glomeruli which were globally sclerosed was strongly correlated with CCr (r = -0.64, P less than 0.0001) and log UAE (r = +0.67, P less than 0.001). Hypertension was more common in patients with more than 10% sclerosed glomeruli (chi square = 9.5, P less than 0.002). Percent sclerosed glomeruli was highly significantly correlated with the index of severity of the arteriolar hyalinosis lesion (r = +0.66, P less than 0.0001) and mesangial volume fraction (r = +0.61, P less than 0.0001). We hypothesize that arteriolar hyalinosis could contribute to global glomerular sclerosis through severe compromise of glomerular blood flow. Alternately, global glomerular sclerosis may result from marked mesangial expansion and capillary occlusion. However, in this broad range of patients it appeared that global glomerular sclerosis and mesangial expansion were not infrequently independent diabetic renal lesions which could contribute separately to the ultimate development of overt diabetic nephropathy.