We report the first identification of a circulating peptide from the amino-terminal end of proCNP. A specific radioimmunoassay was established based on antisera to the synthetic peptide proCNP(1-15). Extracts of plasma, drawn from patients with congestive heart failure or from sheep with experimental heart failure, were subjected to size exclusion and reverse-phase high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) coupled to radioimmunoassay (RIA). These studies revealed the presence of an immunoreactive peptide with a molecular weight (M(r) approximately 5 kDa) similar to that expected for NT-proCNP(1-50), a potential fragment released during processing of pro(CNP). The same material was isolated from extracts of homogenized ovine pituitary, a tissue known to be a relatively enriched source of CNP. Plasma NT-proCNP levels in 22 patients with congestive heart failure (9.7 +/- 0.5 pmol/L, mean +/- SEM, range 5.4-13.7 pmol/L) were raised (P = 0.003) compared to those in 16 healthy volunteers (7.4 +/- 0.3 pmol/L, range 5.7-10.7 pmol/L) and were higher than levels reported for CNP in similar subjects. This first identification of circulating NT-proCNP opens the possibility of studying the factors regulating CNP production and metabolism in vivo.