The detection of overt albuminuria (> 300 mg/g creatinine) in the absence of azotemia was used to diagnose early nephropathy in 34 Pima Indians with NIDDM of 16 +/- 1 years duration. Differential solute clearances were performed serially to define the course of the glomerular injury over 48 months. At baseline, the GFR (107 +/- 5 ml/min), filtration fraction and sieving coefficients of relatively permeant dextrans (< 52 A) were all depressed below corresponding values in 20 normoalbuminuric Pima Indians with a similar duration of NIDDM. Over the ensuing 48 months the GFR (-34%) and filtration fraction (-13%) in the nephropathic patients declined further. The sieving coefficients of large, nearly impermeant dextrans (> 56 A radius) increased selectively and fractional clearances of albumin and IgG increased correspondingly by > 10-fold. Analysis of the findings with pore theory revealed: (1) a progressive decline in pore density and the ultrafiltration coefficient (Kf); and (2) broadening of glomerular pore-size distribution that resulted in greater prominence of large pores (> 70 A radius). We conclude that increasing loss of intrinsic ultrafiltration capacity is the predominant cause of the early and progressive decline in GFR that follows the development of nephropathy in NIDDM. We speculate that progressive impairment of barrier size-selectivity contributes to but does not fully account for the increasingly heavy proteinuria that is observed early in the course of this disorder.