To investigate alterations of magnesium metabolism in Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus, we utilized a new magnesium-specific selective ion electrode apparatus to measure serum ionized magnesium (Mg-io) in fasting subjects with and without Type 2 diabetes, and compared these values to levels of serum total magnesium, and of intracellular free magnesium (Mgi) analysed by 31P-NMR spectroscopy. Both Mg-io (0.630 +/- 0.008 vs 0.552 +/- 0.008 mmol/l, p < 0.001) and Mgi (223.3 +/- 8.3 vs 184 +/- 13.7 mmol/l, p < 0.001), but not serum total magnesium, were significantly reduced in Type 2 diabetes compared with non-diabetic control subjects. Furthermore, a close relationship was observed between serum Mg-io and Mgi (r = 0.728, p < 0.001). We suggest that magnesium deficiency, both extracellular and intracellular, is a characteristic of chronic stable mild Type 2 diabetes, and as such, may predispose to the excess cardiovascular morbidity of the diabetic state. Furthermore, by more adequately reflecting cellular magnesium metabolism than total serum magnesium levels, Mg-io measurements may provide a more readily available tool than has heretofore been available to analyse magnesium metabolism in a variety of diseases.