IDDM is a polygenic and autoimmune disorder in which subsets of white blood cells (WBCs) are engaged in the destruction of beta-cells of the pancreas. The mechanisms that account for the abnormal behavior of these cells in IDDM are not fully understood. By measuring the mean length of telomeres of WBCs from patients with IDDM, we tested the concept that telomeres might play a role in IDDM. We examined the lengths of the terminal restriction fragments (TRFs) of DNA of WBCs from 234 white men comprising 54 patients with IDDM, 74 patients with NIDDM, and 106 control subjects. When adjusted for age, the TRF length from WBCs of patients with IDDM was significantly shorter than that of nondiabetic control subjects (mean +/- SE: 8.6 +/- 0.1 vs. 9.2 +/- 0.1, P = 0.002). No significant difference was observed between the TRF length from WBCs of patients with NIDDM versus nondiabetic subjects. Neither the duration nor the complications of IDDM (i.e., nephropathy and hypertension) had an effect on the TRF length of WBCs from patients with IDDM. The shortened TRF length of WBCs of patients with IDDM likely reflects a marked reduction in the TRF length of subsets of WBCs that play a role in the pathogenesis of IDDM.