The studies so far reported on the metabolic clearance rate of insulin in human diabetes mellitus have given conflicting results, probably because they have been conducted on few patients and have used a variety of experimental techniques and data treatments. We investigated the kinetics of insulin distribution and degradation in 35 normal subjects and in 42 nonketotic, nonobese, overtly diabetic patients, of whom 26 were above 40 yr old and 16 were 40 yr old or less at diagnosis. The design of the study combined (a) the use of a tracer to perturb minimally the steady state and to avoid glucose infusion; (b) the preparation of purified [(125)I]-monoiodoinsulin, which has a metabolic behavior similar to that of native insulin; and (c) noncompartmental analysis of the plasma immunoprecipitable (125)I-insulin disappearance curves, which were recorded for 2 h after pulse i.v. injection of the tracer.Metabolic clearance rate was found to be similar in diabetics (404+/-18 ml/min.m(2), mean+/-SEM) and in normals (420+/-14), although the latter-onset patients had slightly, if not significantly, lower metabolic clearance rate values than the earlier-onset diabetics (385+/-19 and 443+/-36, respectively). The initial distribution volume of the hormone also did not significantly differ in diabetics and normals and was similar to plasma volume. The reentry rate into the initial distribution volume of the hormone and the total, plasma-equivalent distribution volume of insulin were both significantly raised in diabetics (251+/-12 ml/min.m(2) and 10.3+/-0.5 liters/m(2)) in comparison with normals (195+/-8 and 7.5+/-0.3). The posthepatic delivery rate of insulin was found to be slightly raised in later-onset diabetics (194+/-20 mU/h.m(2)), but somewhat reduced in earlier-onset diabetics (133+/-15) in comparison with normals (172+/-14); these differences reflected the different basal plasma insulin concentrations in these three groups. Chronic treatment with oral hypoglycemic drugs, age, duration of the disease, and degree of metabolic control appeared to have only little effect on the kinetics of insulin.On the basis of these results, we conclude that insulin-independent adult diabetics show, already in the fasting state, a combination of insulin resistance and insulin deficiency and a derangement in insulin distribution, the precise significance of which is uncertain.