A theoretical model was developed to relate the size selectivity of the glomerular barrier to the structural characteristics of the individual layers of the capillary wall. Thicknesses and other linear dimensions were evaluated, where possible, from previous electron microscopic studies. The glomerular basement membrane (GBM) was represented as a homogeneous material characterized by a Darcy permeability and by size-dependent hindrance coefficients for diffusion and convection, respectively; those coefficients were estimated from recent data obtained with isolated rat GBM. The filtration slit diaphragm was modeled as a single row of cylindrical fibers of equal radius but nonuniform spacing. The resistances of the remainder of the slit channel, and of the endothelial fenestrae, to macromolecule movement were calculated to be negligible. The slit diaphragm was found to be the most restrictive part of the barrier. Because of that, macromolecule concentrations in the GBM increased, rather than decreased, in the direction of flow. Thus the overall sieving coefficient (ratio of Bowman's space concentration to that in plasma) was predicted to be larger for the intact capillary wall than for a hypothetical structure with no GBM. In other words, because the slit diaphragm and GBM do not act independently, the overall sieving coefficient is not simply the product of those for GBM alone and the slit diaphragm alone. Whereas the calculated sieving coefficients were sensitive to the structural features of the slit diaphragm and to the GBM hindrance coefficients, variations in GBM thickness or filtration slit frequency were predicted to have little effect. The ability of the ultrastructural model to represent fractional clearance data in vivo was at least equal to that of conventional pore models with the same number of adjustable parameters. The main strength of the present approach, however, is that it provides a framework for relating structural findings to the size selectivity of the glomerular barrier.