Goodson and Hunt showed that wound healing is impaired in streptozotocin (Sz) diabetic rats; we speculated that this impairment results from defective early inflammatory responses to wounding. Because we had shown that supplemental vitamin A stimulates the early inflammatory response to wounding in nondiabetic rats, we studied the effect of supplemental vitamin A on wound healing in rats with Sz-induced diabetes. Male Sprague-Dawley rats were fed a commercial rat chow containing twice the amount of vitamin A recommended by the NRC for healthy rats. The rats ate and drank (tap water) ad libitum. Two-thirds of the rats were injected (intravenously) with Sz 60 mg/kg body weight. All of these rats became diabetic (hyperglycemia greater than 350 mg/dl, hyperphagic, polydipsic, polyuric, glycosuric greater than 2%). Seven days later, half of the Sz-injected rats were continued on the chow (Group 2) while the other half (Group 3) were switched to the chow supplemented with 150,000 units of vitamin A/kg chow. The next day, all were wounded (7 cm skin incisions and s.c. polyvinyl alcohol sponge implants). Similarly wounded saline injected nondiabetic rats ingesting the unsupplemented chow served as controls (Group 1). The wounds of Group 2 rats healed poorly compared to Group 1 (breaking strength of skin incisions, 308 +/- 19 g vs 584 +/- 23 g, p less than 0.001; hydroxyproline of the sponge reparative tissue, 0.87 mg vs 2.40 mg/100 mg sponge p less than 0.001). Supplemental vitamin A (Group 3) did not affect the hyperglycemia, hyperphagia, polydipsia or glycosuria, but increased the breaking strengths of the incisions of the diabetic rats (468 +/- 40 g, p less than 0.001), and the sponge hydroxyproline (2.38 mg/100 mg sponge, p less than 0.001). In another experiment, in which the wounding and start of supplemental vitamin A were delayed until 28 days after streptozotocin administration (50 mg/kg body weight), similar results were obtained. Streptozotocin diabetes also caused a decrease in the cross-linking of reparative collagen as judged by the ratio of breaking strengths of skin incisions before and after formalin fixation. Supplemental vitamin A did not influence this defect. Sz also caused peripheral lymphocytopenia, adrenal hypertrophy and thymic involution which responded to the supplemental vitamin A. Based upon experimental data and theoretical considerations we conclude Sz diabetes causes two defects in wound healing: a) quantitatively (reduction in reparative collagen accumulation) and b) qualitative reduction in the degree of cross-linking of reparative wound collagen. The action of supplemental vitamin A in correcting the impaired wound healing, adrenal enlargement, thymic involution and lymphocytopenia of Sz-diabetic rats is independent of an effect on their disturbed carbohydrate metabolism.