A clinical and molecular analysis of 439 individuals affected with myotonic dystrophy, from 101 kindreds, has shown that the size of the unstable CTG repeat detected in nearly all cases of myotonic dystrophy is related both to age at onset of the disorder and to the severity of the phenotype. The largest repeat sizes (1.5-6.0 kb) are seen in patients with congenital myotonic dystrophy, while the minimally affected patients have repeat sizes of < 0.5 kb. Comparison of parent-child pairs has shown that most offspring have an earlier age at onset and a larger repeat size than their parents, with only 4 of 182 showing a definite decrease in repeat size, accompanied by a later age at onset or less severe phenotype. Increase in repeat size from parent to child is similar for both paternal and maternal transmissions when the increase is expressed as a proportion of the parental repeat size. Analysis of congenitally affected cases shows not only that they have, on average, the largest repeat sizes but also that their mothers have larger mean repeat sizes, supporting previous suggestions that a maternal effect is involved in the pathogenesis of this form of the disorder.