Alterations in the connective tissue of the arterial wall have been suggested to play a role in the development of macrovascular disease in diabetes mellitus. The present study deals with changes in the content of GAG in aortic tunica media in human diabetes by separately analysing normal areas and areas with fibrous plaques. The thoracic aorta from 15 diabetic patients (7 with IDDM, 8 with NIDDM), and 30 sex- and age-matched non-diabetic subjects were collected at autopsy. Tunica intima was removed and GAG were isolated from the dried defatted and pulverized tunica media. GAG were quantified by uronic acid analysis and characterized by electrophoresis on cellulose acetate. Results showed that IDDM patients had a relative and absolute increase in hyaluronic acid in normal tunica media compared to non-diabetic subjects. There was a significant positive correlation between hyaluronic acid content of normal tunica media and duration of diabetes, but not between hyaluronic acid content and age. When tunica media from plaque areas was compared to normal areas the same pattern was evident in diabetic patients as in non-diabetic patients--significantly increased proportion of dermatan sulphate and reduced hyaluronic acid. The data agree with the notion that the arterial wall is subject to different pathological processes in diabetes, one of classical atherosclerosis with changes in GAG similar to non-diabetic subjects, and the other seen in areas without plaques with dissimilar alterations in GAG. These data therefore support the concept of the presence of a macrovascular disease in diabetes different from atherosclerosis.