Nephropathy is a serious microvascular complication of diabetes mellitus which is preceded by a period of microalbuminura. Increased loss of proteoglycan (PG) from glomerular basement (GBM) has been postulated to alter glomerular charge selectivity which contributes to urinary loss of albumin. In this study we measured the excretion of urinary glycosaminoglycans (GAG), the degradation products of PG, in 82 non-insulin-dependent (NIDDM) (Type 2) diabetic and 34 non-diabetic subjects. We found that diabetic subjects had a significantly higher GAG urinary excretion rate compared to non-diabetic subjects (12.54 +/- 5.67 vs 8.80 +/- 3.99 micrograms glucuronic acid min-1, p = 0.0001). Categorizing for albuminuric status shows that the diabetic normo-, micro- and macroalbuminuric groups have a higher GAG excretion rate than non-diabetic subjects. Heparan sulphate (HS) GAG urinary excretion was measured in 25 samples from diabetic subjects and 18 non-diabetic subjects. Diabetic subjects excreted more HS GAG than controls both as a rate or as a percentage of total GAG (3.70 +/- 1.94 vs 2.38 +/- 1.48 micrograms glucosamine min-1, p = 0.02; 31.6% +/- 12.5 vs 23.1% +/- 10.4, p = 0.02). Categorizing for albuminuric status shows that micro- and macro-albuminuric groups have a significantly higher HS GAG excretion rate than non-diabetic subjects. We conclude that, as in IDDM, excretion of GAG and HS GAG is higher in NIDDM and may precede the development of microalbuminuria.