Hepatic first-pass metabolism plays a key role in metabolic regulation and drug metabolism. Metabolic processes can be quantified in vivo by positron emission tomography scanning (PET). We wished to develop a PET technique to measure hepatic first-pass metabolism of ammonia. Seven anaesthetised pigs were given positron-labelled ammonia, (13)NH(3), into the portal vein and into the vena cava as successive 2-min infusions followed by 22-min dynamic liver scanning. Vena cava infusion data were used to account for recirculation of tracer and metabolites following the portal vein infusion. The scan data were analysed by a model of sinusoidal zonation of ammonia metabolism with periportal urea formation and perivenous formation of glutamine. The hepatic extraction fraction of (13)NH(3) was 0.73+/-0.16 (mean+/-SD, n=7 pigs). Values of clearance of ammonia to urea and to glutamine were obtained, as were rate constants for washout of these two metabolites. Overall, the modelling showed half of the ammonia uptake to be converted to urea and half to glutamine. The washout rate constant for glutamine was about one-tenth of that for urea. We conclude that hepatic first-pass metabolism of ammonia was successfully assessed by PET.