The procedure of discontinuous gradient ultracentrifugation (DGU) was used to characterize the influence of early diabetic nephropathy on the composition of very low density lipoprotein (VLDL, flotation density 60-400 Svedberg (Sf) units), low density lipoprotein (LDL, flotation density 0-12 Sf) and subfractions of intermediate density lipoprotein (IDL1 and IDL2, 20-60 and 12-20 Sf, respectively). Forty-six subjects with type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes and serum creatinine, less than 140 mumol/l were studied, of whom 23 consistently had normal rates of albumin excretion (AER less than 15 micrograms/min), and 23 had persistent albuminuria (AER 20.0-960.6 micrograms/min). The two groups were similar with respect to total serum lipids, glycaemic control, age and body mass. The composition (lipid, protein and phospholipid) and mass of VLDL, LDL and IDL2 was not appreciably altered by early nephropathy, but free and total cholesterol concentration in IDL1 (Sf 20-60) was increased (total cholesterol 0.68 (0.09) (mean (SE)) vs. 0.47 (0.07) mmol/l, and free cholesterol 0.27 (0.04) vs. 0.17 (0.03) mmol/l, both P less than 0.05). The explanation of these findings was probably an accumulation in the circulation of the remnants of chylomicron metabolism and/or intermediates in the conversion from VLDL to IDL1. In addition, there was a decrease in serum high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in early nephropathy (1.27 (0.06) vs. 1.38 (0.10) mmol/l, P less than 0.05), due to a decrease in the HDL2 cholesterol subfraction (P less than 0.05). These findings may in part explain the increased risk of premature atherosclerosis associated with the development of albuminuria.