The release of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) by vascular endothelial cells during exercise was studied in forty men with insulin-dependent diabetes. Three groups, matched for age and diabetes duration, were defined as: group I (n = 19), normal urinary albumin excretion (less than 30 mg/24 h); group II (n = 11), incipient diabetic nephropathy (30-300 mg albumin excreted per 24 h); and group III (n = 10), clinical diabetic nephropathy (more than 300 mg albumin excreted per 24 h). Nine non-diabetic men served as controls. The rise in tPA antigen with exercise was similar in the controls and group I but significantly smaller in groups II and III (p less than 0.01). The albumin transcapillary escape rate was significantly higher in groups II and III than in group I and normal controls (p less than 0.01). The basal plasma level of von Willebrand factor was higher in groups III (p less than 0.01) and II (difference not significant, p = 0.06) than in group I and normal controls. These findings suggest that insulin-dependent diabetic patients with only slightly raised urinary albumin excretion have general endothelial cell dysfunction or damage. It is not yet clear whether these changes are important in the pathogenesis of thrombosis and atherosclerosis in these patients.