Type 1 diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) is due to autoimmune destruction of pancreatic beta-cells. Genetic susceptibility to IDDM is encoded by several loci, one of which (IDDM2) maps to a variable number of tandem repeats (VNTR) minisatellite, upstream of the insulin gene (INS). The short class I VNTR alleles (26-63 repeats) predispose to IDDM, while class III alleles (140-210 repeats) have a dominant protective effect. We have reported that, in human adult and fetal pancreas in vivo, class III alleles are associated with marginally lower INS mRNA levels than class I, suggesting transcriptional effects of the VNTR. These may be related to type 1 diabetes pathogenesis, as insulin is the only known beta-cell specific IDDM autoantigen. In search of a more plausible mechanism for the dominant effect of class III alleles, we analysed expression of insulin in human fetal thymus, a critical site for tolerance induction to self proteins. Insulin was detected in all thymus tissues examined and class III VNTR alleles were associated with 2- to 3-fold higher INS mRNA levels than class I. We therefore propose higher levels of thymic INS expression, facilitating immune tolerance induction, as a mechanism for the dominant protective effect of class III alleles.