Susceptibility to diabetic nephropathy may be related to a predisposition to arterial hypertension. We have studied the activity of sodium-lithium countertransport in red cells, a marker of risk for essential hypertension, in white European adults with insulin-dependent diabetes and diabetic nephropathy, a matched group of patients with diabetes without renal disease, and nondiabetic patients with renal disease. Measures of metabolic control and concentrations of plasma free insulin and growth hormone were similar in the two diabetic groups. The degree of impairment in renal function was similar in the diabetic and nondiabetic patients with renal disease. Body-mass index and plasma potassium concentrations were similar in all three groups. Diastolic blood pressure was elevated to a similar degree in the two groups with renal disease, as compared with that in the diabetic patients without renal disease. The rates of sodium-lithium countertransport in red cells were significantly higher in the diabetic patients with renal disease (mean +/- SD, 0.55 +/- 0.19 mmol of lithium per liter of red cells per hour) than in the diabetic patients without renal disease (0.33 +/- 0.16; P less than 0.005) and in the nondiabetic patients with renal disease (0.31 +/- 0.14; P less than 0.001). Predisposition to hypertension, as indicated by elevated sodium-lithium countertransport activity in red cells, may serve as a marker for the risk of renal disease in patients with insulin-dependent diabetes.