Overt proteinuria is a hallmark of diabetic nephropathy while microalbuminuria is thought to be a predictor of later onset of diabetic nephropathy. Yet the mechanisms for abnormal urinary protein leak in diabetes have not been defined. We studied 28 patients with type I diabetes for 7 to 33 years. Creatinine clearance, urinary albumin excretion rate (UAE), and multiple blood pressures were obtained in each patient. A renal biopsy was performed in each patient and in 28 normal subjects. Quantitative stereology was used to determine foot process (FP) width, filtration slit length density (FSLV) and filtration slit length/glomerulus (FSLG). FP width was slightly wider than normal in diabetic patients with UAE less than 250 mg/24 hr while FP was significantly wider than both of these groups in diabetics with UAE greater than 250 mg/24 hr. FSLV and FSLG were similar in normals and diabetics with UAE less than 250 mg/24 hr but both were reduced in diabetics with UAE greater than 250 mg/24 hr. UAE correlated with FP width (P less than 0.05), FSLG (P less than 0.01) and most precisely and FSLV (P less than 0.001). Diabetics with microalbuminuria had values for all the structural parameters measured here not different from diabetics with UAE in the normal range. Perturbations of epithelial cell structure are present in diabetes mellitus especially in patients with nephropathy. The exact relationships between albuminuria and epithelial cell structure remains to be elucidated.