We studied a group of 50 adolescents, average age 16 years, with diagnosed IDDM present for about seven years. Twenty-five had microalbuminuria (MA) averaging 111.0 +/- 34.0 (SEM) micrograms/min albumin excretion rate versus 6.7 +/- 7.4 micrograms/min in the 25 without MA. In other respects, such as sex ratio, age, body mass index, duration of IDDM, hemoglobin A1c, and normotensive systolic, diastolic and mean blood pressures (BP), these subgroups were closely matched. We compared them with a control group of 39 normotensive adolescents, of whom 18 were carefully matched siblings of the IDDM subjects with MA and 21 were similarly matched siblings of the IDDM non-MA subjects. Plasma renin concentration was determined by a direct radioimmunoassay method (Sanofi-Pasteur) and found to be virtually the same in the control and IDDM adolescents as a whole. There was also no real difference between the MA and non-MA subgroups. In contrast, plasma prorenin was significantly higher in the combined IDDM group (197.5 +/- 9.3 vs. control, 134.0 +/- 7.9 pg/ml, P < 0.0001). It was also higher in the MA subgroup than in the non-MA subgroup (226.4 +/- 13.6 vs. 168.5 +/- 10.1 pg/ml, P < 0.001). Interestingly, the 18 control siblings matching the MA subgroup had higher plasma prorenin than the 21 control siblings matching the non-MA subgroup (P < 0.001), suggesting a familial predisposition that precedes detectable diabetes and nephropathy. Our findings confirm and extend reports by other workers that elevated plasma prorenin is associated with incipient nephropathy, manifested by MA. The exclusive renal origin of this prorenin, its role in plasma, and the mechanism responsible for its elevation in IDDM with MA, are yet to be demonstrated, as is the general applicability of these findings to different populations of diabetics, with a higher incidence and severity of complications.