In the present study we investigated whether glomerular hyperfiltration and albuminuria in streptozotocin-induced diabetic nephropathy in male Wistar-Münich rats are associated with changes in the heparan sulphate content of the glomerular basement membrane. Rats with a diabetes mellitus duration of 8 months, treated with low doses of insulin, showed a significant increase in glomerular filtration rate (p < 0.01) and effective renal plasma flow (p < 0.05), without alterations in filtration fraction or mean arterial blood pressure. Diabetic rats developed progressive albuminuria (at 7 months, diabetic rats (D): 42 +/- 13 vs control rats (C): 0.5 +/- 0.2 mg/24 h, p < 0.002) and a decrease of the selectivity index (clearance IgG/clearance albumin) of the proteinuria (at 7 months, D: 0.20 +/- 0.04 vs C: 0.39 +/- 0.17, p < 0.05), suggesting loss of glomerular basement membrane charge. Light- and electron microscopy demonstrated a moderate increase of mesangial matrix and thickening of the glomerular basement membrane in the diabetic rats. Immunohistochemically an increase of laminin, collagen III and IV staining was observed in the mesangium and in the glomerular basement membrane, without alterations in glomerular basement membrane staining of heparan sulphate proteoglycan core protein or heparan sulphate. Glomerular basement membrane heparan sulphate content, quantitated in individual glomerular extracts by a new inhibition ELISA using a specific anti-glomerular basement membrane heparan sulphate monoclonal antibody (JM403), was not altered (median (range) D: 314 (152-941) vs C: 262 (244-467) ng heparan sulphate/mg glomerulus). However, the amount of glomerular 4-hydroxyproline, as a measure for collagen content, was significantly increased (D: 1665 (712-2014) vs C: 672 (515-1208) ng/mg glomerulus, p < 0.01). Consequently, a significant decrease of the heparan sulphate/4-hydroxyproline ratio (D: 0.21 (0.14-1.16) vs C: 0.39 (0.30-0.47), p < 0.05) was found. In summary, we demonstrate that in streptozotocin-diabetic rats glomerular hyperfiltration and a progressive, selective proteinuria are associated with a relative decrease of glomerular basement membrane heparan sulphate. Functionally, a diminished heparan sulphate-associated charge density within the glomerular basement membrane might explain the selective proteinuria in the diabetic rats.