Myotonic dystrophy (DM) is a progressive neuromuscular disorder which results from elongations of an unstable (CTG)n repeat, located in the 3' untranslated region of the DM gene. A correlation has been demonstrated between the increase in the repeat number of this sequence and the severity of the disease. However, the clinical status of patients cannot be unambiguously ascertained solely on the basis of the number of CTG repeats. Moreover, the exclusive maternal inheritance of the congenital form remains unexplained. Our observation of differently sized repeats in various DM tissues from the same individual may explain why the size of the mutation observed in lymphocytes does not necessarily correlate with the severity and nature of symptoms. Through a molecular and genetic study of 142 families including 418 DM patients, we have investigated the dynamics of the CTG repeat meiotic instability. A positive correlation between the size of the repeat and the intergenerational enlargement was observed similarly through male and female meioses for < or = 0.5-kb CTG sequences. Beyond 0.5 kb, the intergenerational variation was more important through female meioses, whereas a tendency to compression was observed almost exclusively in male meioses, for > or = 1.5-kb fragments. This implies a size- and sex-dependent meiotic instability. Moreover, segregation analysis supports the hypothesis of a maternal as well as a familial predisposition for the occurrence of the congenital form. Finally, this analysis reveals a significant excess of transmitting grandfathers partially accounted for by increased fertility in affected males.