The effect of enalapril on glomerular hemodynamics and permselectivity and on subsequent sclerosis was studied in male MWF/Ztm rats which spontaneously develop proteinuria and glomerular structural damage. Untreated group 1 and enalapril-treated group 2 (50 mg/liter, in the drinking water) underwent micropuncture studies after 2 mo of observation. After the same period of treatment, group 3 (untreated) and group 4 (enalapril treated) were used for determination of whole-kidney function and neutral dextran clearances. Group 5 (untreated) and group 6 (enalapril treated) were followed for an additional 4 mo and used for kidney function and morphological studies. Enalapril significantly lowered systolic blood pressure, which was elevated in untreated groups, and significantly reduced proteinuria (295 +/- 64 vs. 128 +/- 24 mg/24 h by the end of the study). Despite the reduced renal perfusion pressure, whole-kidney glomerular filtration rate was higher in enalapril-treated than in untreated rats (0.96 +/- 0.14 vs. 0.81 +/- 0.10 ml/min, P less than 0.05) as was the single nephron glomerular filtration rate (54 +/- 7.1 vs. 46 +/- 4.0 nl/min, P less than 0.05). The single glomerular afferent plasma flow was comparable in both groups. Enalapril reduced mean glomerular capillary hydraulic pressure from the normal value of 51 +/- 1 mmHg (untreated rats) to a value lower than normal (44 +/- 1 mmHg, P less than 0.001). These hemodynamic changes were associated with a significant reduction in afferent (approximately 23%) and efferent (approximately 26%) arteriolar resistance. The mean ultrafiltration coefficient was two times higher in the enalapril (0.126 +/- 0.027 nl/s per mmHg) than in the untreated group (0.061 +/- 0.023 nl/s per mmHg). The clearance of dextran macromolecules relative to that of inulin was significantly reduced for all molecular sizes studied (26-64 A) in enalapril-treated vs. untreated rats. Theoretical analysis of dextran fractional clearances using a heteroporous model of neutral solute transport across the glomerular capillary wall indicated that enalapril affected glomerular membrane size selective properties, reducing uniformly the radius of hypothetical membrane pores. Enalapril treatment also significantly limited (P less than 0.01) the development of glomerular structural lesions (mean percentage of sclerotic glomeruli was 4.2 +/- 3.5% [treated] vs. 28 +/- 15% [untreated] rats at the end of the study) as well as tubulo-interstitial damage. These results suggest that the protective effect of enalapril on the development of proteinuria and glomerular sclerosis in this model is due to its property of ameliorating size selectivity and hydraulic permeability of the glomerular capillaries.