Dysmorphogenesis in diabetic mothers occurs more frequently than in the general population. This phenomenon is believed to be caused by the teratogenic effects of metabolic fuel mixtures with associated membrane injury and aberrations in the biochemical constituents. The present experiment was designed to determine: 1) if hyperglycemia-induced membrane injury is associated with intracellular and/or extracellular lipid disturbances; 2) if supplemental myo-inositol therapy prevents hyperglycemia-induced embryopathy; 3) if a correlation exists between dietary myo-inositol, serum and tissue levels of myo-inositol, and conceptus development; and 4) the cellular content of arachidonic acid following myo-inositol supplementation. Sixty-five female Sprague-Dawley rats were mated, and divided into three groups. One group was nondiabetic normal controls, and two groups had diabetes experimentally induced with streptozotocin. Of the diabetic groups, one received a normal diet, while the other received a myo-inositol-supplemented diet during the period of organogenesis. Blood samples were collected on days 0 and 12 of pregnancy. Embryos and yolk sacs were analyzed for myo-inositol and arachidonic acid levels, using mass spectrochromatography. Dietary myo-inositol supplementation of diabetic mothers resulted in a significant decrease in the incidence of neural tube defects when compared with diabetics not receiving supplements (9.5 vs. 20.4%; P < 0.05). This protective effect was incomplete, based on the incidence observed in the nondiabetic controls (9.5 vs. 3.8%; P < 0.05). The myo-inositol embryonic tissue levels in the diabetic group which had been fed a regular diet without supplementation were significantly lower than in the nondiabetic group. Dietary therapy successfully restored myo-inositol levels in the yolk sacs, as suggested by similar tissue levels in diabetics receiving myo-inositol supplementation and normal controls (18.7 +/- 1.3 vs. 19.1 +/- 2.0 ng/mg; P = ns). Dietary therapy, however, failed to restore myo-inositol levels in the embryos, suggesting hyperglycemia-induced faulty transport of nutrients from the yolk sac to the embryo. No correlation was noted between maternal blood levels of myo-inositol, with or without supplementation, and the clinical outcome. Tissue arachidonic acid levels were markedly reduced in the conceptuses of diabetic mothers with (0.4 +/- 0.1 micrograms/mg) or without (0.25 +/- 0.08 micrograms/mg) myo-inositol supplementation when compared to the nondiabetic controls (3.33 +/- 0.24 micrograms/mg). These data demonstrate that diabetes-induced embryopathy is associated with a deficiency state in both myo-inositol and arachidonic acid. The myo-inositol deficiency is not demonstrated at the serum level, but rather at the tissue level, suggesting a paracrine action. Dietary supplementation of myo-inositol is associated with an increase in tissue myo-inositol levels and a decrease in malformations. This therapy holds promise for use as a dietary prophylaxis against diabetic embryopathy.