Argininemia is an autosomal recessive disorder caused by a deficiency in the liver-type arginase enzyme. Clinical manifestations include progressive spastic diplegia and mental retardation. While the quality of life can severely deteriorate in most such patients, some do show remarkable improvement in neurological symptoms while on controlled diets. We examined the thesis that differences in clinical responses to dietary treatment are based on molecular heterogeneity in mutant arginase alleles. Genomic DNAs from 11 patients with argininemia were examined using the polymerase chain reaction, cloning, and sequencing. Nine mutations representing 21/22 mutant alleles were identified in 11 patients with argininemia, and four of these mutations were expressed in vitro to determine the severity of enzymatic defects. We found that these mutations accounted for 64% of the mutant alleles in our patients. Based on findings in vitro expression tests, the mutations can be considered either severe or moderate. Patients with at least one moderate mutant allele responded well to dietary treatment; concentrations of plasma arginine were controlled within 300 microM. In contrast, patients with two severely mutated alleles did not respond to dietary treatment and plasma arginine was over 400 microM. Argininemia is heterogeneous at the molecular level. The degree of clinical improvement during dietary treatment is reflected in the concentration of arginine in plasma, as a measure of metabolic control. Plasma arginine levels during treatment is reflected in the concentration of arginine in plasma, as a measure of metabolic control. Plasma arginine levels during treatment correlated with types of molecular defects in the arginase genes.