Only one third of patients with juvenile-onset insulin-dependent diabetes seem to be susceptible to diabetic nephropathy. To test whether this susceptibility is related to a predisposition to hypertension, we investigated the association of nephropathy with markers of risk for hypertension. We randomly selected 89 patients with insulin-dependent diabetes from a roster of children and adolescents who were seen between 1968 and 1972 at about the time the diagnosis was made. These 89 patients were recalled for examination, as young adults, in 1986 and 1987. Patients with nephropathy (cases, n = 33) were compared with controls without nephropathy (n = 56). Having a parent with hypertension tripled the risk of nephropathy (odds ratio, 3.7; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.4 to 10.1). Moreover, cases had significantly higher values for maximal velocity of lithium-sodium countertransport in red cells than controls (mean maximal velocity +/- SE, 0.51 +/- 0.04 vs. 0.38 +/- 0.02 mmol per liter of cells per hour; P less than 0.05). The excess risk associated with both these indicators of a predisposition to hypertension was evident principally in patients with poor glycemic control during their first decade of diabetes; the odds ratios were 4.5 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.1 to 18.7) for patients with a parental history of hypertension and 7.7 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.8 to 33.8) for patients with a maximal velocity of lithium-sodium countertransport greater than or equal to 0.35 mmol per liter of cells per hour. We conclude that the risk of renal disease in patients with juvenile-onset insulin-dependent diabetes is associated with a genetic predisposition to hypertension. Predisposition to hypertension appears to increase susceptibility for renal disease principally in patients with poor glycemic control.