Our objective was to ascertain the frequency of antibodies to glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) in Europids and four Asian ethnic groups with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) to gain insight into why the prevalence and incidence of IDDM varies so widely among ethnic and/or geographically diverse population groups. The subjects in this study were Europid (n = 49), Japanese (n = 16), Thai (n = 7), Korean (n = 21), and Chinese (n = 13) persons with IDDM with a duration ranging from 5 to 14 years. There were similar numbers of healthy controls matched for each ethnic group. A validated radioimmunoprecipitation assay used GAD from pig brain radiolabeled with 125I using chloramine T. Islet cell cytoplasmic antibodies measured by indirect immunofluorescence were expressed as Juvenile Diabetes Foundation units. The prevalence of antibodies to GAD, compared with Europids (63%), was much lower in all Asian populations with IDDM: Japanese (31%), Thai (29%), Korean (5%), and Chinese (27%). The mean level of antibodies to GAD, however, among diabetics from each population who gave a positive reaction, was similar. For all groups, the prevalence of antibodies to GAD was much higher than that of islet cell cytoplasmic antibodies. Almost all IDDM subjects positive for islet cell antibodies had antibodies to GAD, but the converse did not hold. A radioimmunoprecipitation assay for antibodies to GAD applied to serum from subjects with IDDM in various ethnic groups showed that Europids with IDDM had a much higher prevalence of such antibodies than did Asians. This held for all ethnic groups, and particularly Koreans. Thus, among different populations, there may be etiologic heterogeneity of IDDM. Alternatively, if an autoimmune process is generally operative, different pancreatic autoantigens are involved.