Early tubular alterations were studied in 53 children with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM), 32 of whom were followed at regular 6-monthly intervals for 3 years. The urinary levels of retinol-binding protein (RBP), beta 2-microglobulin and brush border antigens (BBA) (determined by monoclonal enzyme immunoassay) were taken as indices of functional and cellular tubular alterations; urinary albumin was considered an early marker of glomerular alterations. All indices of tubular alterations were higher in IDDM children than in 368 normal children, while albuminuria was unchanged. Urinary levels of BBA, however, varied widely during follow-up, with 25 of the 32 IDDM patients who were followed at regular intervals having pathological values for BBA on at least one occasion, followed by normalization. Metabolic alteration was found to be the main cause of this variability, since a high statistical correlation was found between urinary BBA and fructosamine (P < 0.001) and between RBP and the stable fraction of glycosylated haemoglobin (P < 0.001). The data confirm that transient tubular proteinuria occurs in diabetic children before any other marker of renal involvement such as microalbuminuria. The maintenance of good metabolic control is essential to normalize this early abnormality that can be considered a reversible sign of functional renal involvement.