IgA nephropathy (IgAN) is a complex trait determined by genetic and environmental factors. Most IgAN patients exhibit a characteristic undergalactosylation of the O-glycans of the IgA1 hinge region, which promotes formation and glomerular deposition of immune complexes. It is not known whether this aberrant glycosylation is the result of an acquired or inherited defect, or whether the presence of aberrant IgA1 glycoforms alone can produce IgAN. A newly validated lectin enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was used to determine the serum level of galactose-deficient IgA1 (Gd-IgA1) in a cohort of 89 IgAN patients and 266 of their relatives. High Gd-IgA1 levels (≥95th percentile for controls) were observed in all 5 available patients with familial IgAN, in 21 of 45 (47%) of their at-risk relatives (assuming autosomal dominant inheritance), and in only 1 of 19 (5%) of unrelated individuals who married into the family. This provides evidence that abnormal IgA1 glycosylation is an inherited rather than acquired trait. Similarly, Gd-IgA1 levels were high in 65 of 84 (78%) patients with sporadic IgAN and in 50 of 202 (25%) blood relatives. Heritability of Gd-IgA1 was estimated at 0.54 (P = 0.0001), and segregation analysis suggested the presence of a major dominant gene on a polygenic background. Because most relatives with abnormal IgA1 glycoforms were asymptomatic, additional cofactors must be required for IgAN to develop. The fact that abnormal IgAI glycosylation clusters in most but not all families suggests that measuring Gd-IgA1 may help distinguish patients with different pathogenic mechanisms of disease. Copyright © 2008 by the American Society of Nephrology.