Glomerular function was monitored prospectively in 13 patients with insulin-dependent diabetes and diabetic nephropathy for up to 51 months. Glomerular filtration rate, measured by 51Cr-EDTA clearance, showed a linear decline in all patients. Rates of fall ranged between 0.63 and 2.4 ml/minute per month (mean +/- SEM 1.2 +/- 0.16). Plasma creatinine concentration proved to be an insensitive marker of glomerular function, especially in the early phase of nephropathy. A good correlation was found between the rate of change of 51Cr-EDTA glomerular filtration rate and that of inverse creatinine levels when plasma creatinine concentrations exceeded 200 mumol/liter. Inverse plasma beta 2-microglobulin concentrations, however, showed a highly significant correlation (r = 0.93; p less than 0.001) with 51Cr-EDTA glomerular filtration rate over the whole range of values, making it sensitive in screening for early impairment of renal function. A significant relationship (r = 0.85; p less than 0.01) was found between the rates of change of the 51Cr-EDTA glomerular filtration rate and of inverse beta 2-microglobulin levels for plasma beta 2-microglobulin concentrations above 3 mg/liter. A progressive increase in the fractional clearance of albumin, IgG, and beta 2-microglobulin was noted as the glomerular filtration rate fell, indicating an evolving defect in the renal handling of proteins. The rate of decline of the glomerular filtration rate was unrelated to age, sex, duration of diabetes, duration of diabetes before onset of proteinuria, glomerular filtration rate, initial albumin clearance, blood glucose control, and arterial pressure, when diastolic values were below 100 mm Hg. The effect of therapeutic intervention (e.g., blood glucose, blood pressure, or diet) on the progression of diabetic nephropathy can be reliably evaluated by precise measures of rate of decline of glomerular filtration rate and changes in fractional clearance of plasma proteins. The factor(s) determining the individual rate of decline of renal function still remain obscure.