Streptozotocin (STZ)-induced diabetes in the rat causes early renal enlargement preceded by a transient elevation in IGF-I content and an increase in IGF-I tissue binding. The effects of IGF-I are mainly mediated through the IGF-I receptor (IGF-IR) and modulated by six specific IGF-binding proteins (IGFBPs). We investigated the gene expression of IGF-I, IGF-IR and IGFBPs at a cellular level within the kidney using in situ hybridisation techniques in short-term (7 day) STZ-diabetic, insulin-treated euglycaemic and normal rats. In diabetes, IGFBP-1 mRNA showed markedly increased expression in distal tubules, collecting ducts and thick ascending limbs of Henle (TALs). IGF-I, and IGFBP-4 and -5 mRNAs showed site-specific tubular changes whilst remaining unchanged in other parts of the kidney normally expressing the genes: IGF-I and IGFBP-4 mRNAs were reduced in TALs and proximal tubules respectively; IGFBP-5 mRNA was reduced in most distal tubular cells but strongly expressed in a few of these cells. IGF-IR mRNA and the mRNAs for IGFBP-2, -3 and -6 were unchanged in STZ diabetes. There was no difference between control and insulin-treated kidneys. These complex changes suggest possible involvement of the IGF/IGFBP system in the early stages of diabetic renal hypertrophy.