About 50% of individual members of a diabetes-prone stock of BB rats eventually become hyperglycemic (usually between 60 and 180 days of age) while the remainder remain normoglycemic for life. Circulating levels of Ia antigen bearing T-lymphocytes from different lymphoid compartments of acutely diabetic and normoglycemic (but diabetes prone) BB rats were determined with monoclonal antibodies in an effort to analyze the temporal relationship between levels of this unusual T cell antigen and the onset of diabetes. In young normoglycemic rats elevated blood levels of Ia-positive T-lymphocytes (greater than or equal to 4.00%) predicted the future development of hyperglycemia with a sensitivity of 85% and a specificity of 83%. The interval between the identification of these elevated levels and the onset of diabetes ranged from 22 to 82 days. After the development of hyperglycemia the level of Ia-positive T-lymphocytes declined progressively in all lymphoid compartments with chronicity of the diabetes. We conclude that Ia antigens bearing T cells serve as immunologic "markers" of susceptibility to diabetes in this "high-risk" population and probably reflect an ongoing immune process during the prediabetic state. Similar findings in humans with a family history of diabetes might lead to identification of prediabetic individuals and allow selective use of immunomodulation to prevent the disease.