The Friedreich ataxia (FA) mutation has recently been identified as an unstable trinucleotide GAA repeat present 7-22 times in the normal population but amplified as many as > 1,000 times in FA. Since it is an autosomal recessive disease, FA does not show typical features observed in other dynamic mutation disorders, such as genetic anticipation. We have analyzed the GAA repeat in 104 FA patients and 163 carrier relatives previously defined by linkage analysis. The GAA expansion was detected in all patients, most (94%) of them being homozygous for the mutation. We have demonstrated that clinical variability in FA is related to the size of the expanded alleles: milder forms of the disease-late-onset FA and FA with retained reflexes-are associated with shorter expansions, especially with the smaller of the two expanded alleles. Absence of cardiomyopathy is also associated with shorter alleles. Dynamics of the GAA repeat has been investigated in 212 parent-offspring pairs. Meiotic instability showed a sex bias: paternally transmitted alleles tend to decrease in a linear way that depends on the paternal expansion size, whereas maternal alleles can either increase or decrease. A different pattern of intergenerational variation was also observed, depending on the genetic status of the sib: patients had shorter expansions than were seen in heterozygous carriers. This finding has been interpreted as a postzygotic event. Finally, we have observed that the size of the expansion remains constant in the population through carriers.