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Morphologic and functional abnormalities of vascular endothelium are well recognized in diabetes. In view of our previous finding that high glucose concentrations accelerate death and hamper replication of cultured human endothelial cells, we have investigated in the same model the possibility that exposure to high glucose may result in DNA damage. DNA from human endothelial cells--but not from fibroblasts--exposed to 30 mM glucose for 9-14 d manifested an accelerated rate of unwinding in alkali indicative of an increased number of single strand breaks (P less than 0.001 vs. control). Endothelial cells exposed to high glucose also manifested an increased amount of hydroxy-urea-resistant thymidine incorporation (333 +/- 153 cpm/10(5) cells vs. 88 +/- 42 in control cells, mean +/- SD, P = 0.04), which is indicative of increased DNA repair synthesis. Neither DNA damage nor repair synthesis were increased by medium hypertonicity achieved with 30 mM mannitol. These findings suggest the possibility that, under conditions of high ambient glucose, excess glucose entry in cells that are insulin independent for glucose transport may, directly or indirectly, perturb DNA function. Further, they suggest the possibility that different individual capabilities to repair DNA damage--a process that is under genetic control--may represent a mechanism for different individual susceptibilities to development of diabetic vascular complication.