Non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) has a strong genetic component and maternal factors have recently been implicated in disease inheritance. The mitochondrial myopathies are a group of diseases which often show maternal inheritance as a result of mtDNA defects; some patients have impaired glucose tolerance. Occasional families with maternally inherited diabetes and deafness associated with a deletion or point mutation of mtDNA have been reported. To assess the importance of mitochondrial gene defects in NIDDM, 150 unrelated diabetic subjects from Wales, UK and 68 unrelated patients with diabetes and at least one affected sibling from England, UK were studied. Southern blot analysis did not show any large mtDNA deletions or duplications. One patient had a mutation in the mitochondrial tRNAleu(UUR) gene at bp 3243. This mutation is commonly associated with the syndrome of mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis and stroke like episodes (MELAS). Study of this patient and his siblings showed a distinct form of late-onset diabetes associated with nerve deafness but no clinical features of the MELAS syndrome. No diabetic subject was shown to have the mtDNA mutation at position 8344 (tRNA(lys)) which has previously been described in the syndrome of mitochondrial encephalomyopathy and red-ragged fibres (MERRF). The role of other mitochondrial gene defects in diabetes and the pathophysiological basis of glucose intolerance in patients with the MELAS mutation requires further elucidation.