Renal handling of acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate was studied in 12 obese subjects undergoing total starvation. Simultaneously, the acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate, and inulin clearance rates were measured, and acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate reabsorption rates were calculated. Renal clearance of blood acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate remained constant. In contrast, acetoacetate reabsorption rate increased significantly from 47 plus or minus 10 mumoles/min on day 3 to 106 plus or minus 15, 89 plus or minus 10, and 96 plus or minus 10 mumoles/min on days 10, 17, and 24, respectively. Similarly, beta-hydroxybutyrate reabsorption rate increased significantly from 154 plus or minus 27 mumoles/min on day 3 to 419 plus or minus 53, 399 plus or minus 25, and 436 plus or minus 53 mumoles/min on days 10, 17, and 24, respectively. Both acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate reabsorption rates increased linearly when plotted against their filtered loads. Thus, no tubular maximal transport rate exists for acetoacetate or beta-hydroxybutyrate during physiologic ketonemia. Conservation 450-500 mmoles of ketone bodies/day prevents large urinary losses of cations during prolonged starvation. Since ammonium becomes the major cation excreted during prolonged fasting, the increased renal reabsorption of ketone bodies minimizes body protein loss and aids in maintaining high circulating acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate concentrations.