Recent reports have described families in whom a combination of elevated serum ferritin not related to iron overload and congenital nuclear cataract is transmitted as an autosomal dominant trait. We have studied the molecular pathogenesis of hyperferritinemia in two families showing different phenotypic expression of this new genetic disorder. Serum ferritin levels ranged from 950 to 1,890 microg/L in affected individuals from family 1, and from 366 to 635 microg/L in those from family 2. Cataract was clinically manifested in family 1 and asymptomatic in family 2. By using monoclonal antibodies specific for the H and L ferritin subunits, serum ferritin was found to be essentially L type in both normal and affected individuals. The latter also showed normal amounts of H-type ferritin in circulating mononuclear cells; on the contrary, L-type ferritin contents were 13 times normal in family 1 and five times normal in family 2 on average. Serum ferritin was glycosylated in both normal and affected individuals. There was a close relationship between mononuclear cell L-type ferritin content and serum ferritin concentration (r = 0.95, P < .00001), suggesting that the excess production of ferritin in cells was directly responsible for the hyperferritinemia. The dysregulated L-subunit synthesis was found to result from different point mutations in a noncoding sequence of genomic L-subunit DNA, which behaves as an mRNA cis-acting element known as iron regulatory element (IRE). Affected individuals from family 1 were heterozygous for a point mutation (a single G to A change) in the highly conserved, three-nucleotide motif forming the IRE bulge. Affected members from family 2 were heterozygous for a double point mutation in the IRE lower stem. Using a gel retardation assay, the observed molecular lesions were shown to variably reduce the IRE affinity for an iron regulatory protein (IRP), which inhibits ferritin mRNA translation. The direct relationship between the degree of hyperferritinemia and severity of cataract suggests that this latter is the consequence of excessive ferritin production within the lens fibers. These findings provide strong evidence that serum ferritin is a byproduct of intracellular ferritin synthesis and that the L-subunit gene on chromosome 19 is the source of glycosylated serum ferritin. From a practical standpoint, this new genetic disorder should be taken into account by clinicians when facing a high serum ferritin in an apparently healthy person.