It has been previously shown that intrinsic metabolites can be imaged based on their water proton exchange rates using saturation transfer techniques. The goal of this study was to identify an appropriate chemical exchange site that could be developed for use as an exogenous chemical exchange dependent saturation transfer (CEST) contrast agent under physiological conditions. These agents would function by reducing the water proton signal through a chemical exchange site on the agent via saturation transfer. The ideal chemical exchange site would have a large chemical shift from water. This permits a high exchange rate without approaching the fast exchange limit at physiological pH (6.5-7.6) and temperature (37 degrees C), as well as minimizing problems associated with magnetic field susceptibility. Numerous candidate chemicals (amino acids, sugars, nucleotides, heterocyclic ring chemicals) were evaluated in this preliminary study. Of these, barbituric acid and 5, 6-dihydrouracil were more fully characterized with regard to pH, temperature, and concentration CEST effects. The best chemical exchange site found was the 5.33-ppm indole ring -NH site of 5-hydroxytryptophan. These data demonstrate that a CEST-based exogenous contrast agent for MRI is feasible.