Antibodies in sera from newly diagnosed insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) patients are directed to a human islet cell protein of relative molecular mass (Mr) 64,000. Since IDDM seems to develop after a prodromal period of beta-cell autoimmunity, this study has examined whether 64,000 Mr antibodies could be detected in 14 individuals who subsequently developed IDDM and five first degree relatives who have indications of altered beta-cell function. Sera were screened by immunoprecipitation on total detergent lysates of human islets and positive sera retested on membrane protein preparations. Antibodies to the 64,000 Mr membrane protein were consistently detected in 11/14 IDDM patients, and in all 5 first degree relatives. 10 IDDM patients were already positive in the first samples, obtained 4-91 mo before the clinical onset of IDDM, whereas 1 patient progressed to a high 64,000 Mr immunoreactivity, at a time where a commencement of a decline in beta-cell function was detected. 64,000 Mr antibodies were detected before islet cell cytoplasmic antibodies (ICCA) in two patients. In the control groups of 21 healthy individuals, 36 patients with diseases of the thyroid and 5 SLE patients, the 64,000 Mr antibodies were detected in only one individual, who was a healthy sibling to an IDDM patient. These results suggest that antibodies against the Mr 64,000 human islet protein are an early marker of beta-cell autoimmunity and may be useful to predict a later development of IDDM.