The large interindividual variation in diabetes duration until the onset of nephropathy is partly unexplained. This study was performed to compare renal structure in insulin-dependent (IDDM) patients who had developed signs of nephropathy after a short or long duration of diabetes. Renal biopsies were obtained from 17 IDDM patients, with albumin excretion rate 20-300 microg/min and normal blood pressure. Six patients had <25 years duration ("short-term", early onset of microalbuminuria) and eight patients had duration >30 years ("long-term", late onset of microalbuminuria). Biopsies were obtained 18 months after entry into a study testing the effect of low-dose antihypertensives. Parameters characterizing diabetic glomerulopathy were significantly increased in IDDM patients compared with those in 17 living donors: Basement membrane thickness, mean and (CV): 591 nm (0.17) vs 320 nm (0.12), mesangial volume fraction per glomerulus 0.27 (0.19) vs 0.19 (0.10), matrix volume fraction per glomerulus 0.16 (0.20) vs 0.097 (0.22), matrix star volume 38.5 microm3 (0.43) vs 13.9 microm3 (0.31), (p<10(-4) for each). Comparison of short vs long-term patients showed no significant differences in glomerulopathy parameters, glomerular volume or extracellular material per glomerulus, whereas the fraction of occluded glomeruli was significantly increased in long-term patients. A close correlation obtained between fraction of occluded glomeruli and glomerular filtration rate (r=0.72, p= 0.001). Glomerular occlusion occurred unrelated to the severity of diabetic glomerulopathy. It is suggested that diabetic macroangiopathy and arteriolar hyalinization may play an important role in the renal function of patients with slow development of nephropathy.