To study glutamate and glutamine kinetics, 4-h unprimed intravenous infusions of L-[15N]glutamate, L-[2-15N]glutamine, and L-[5-15N]-glutamine were administered to healthy young adult male subjects in the postabsorptive state. Arterialized-venous blood samples were drawn and analyzed for glutamate and glutamine 15N enrichments. The fractional turnover rates of the tracer-miscible glutamate and glutamine pools were fast, 8.0 and 2.8% min-1, respectively. The glutamate tracer-miscible pool accounted for less than one-tenth the estimated free glutamate pool in the body. The plasma glutamate amino N, glutamine amino N and glutamine amide N rates of appearance were 83 +/- 22 (means +/- SD), 348 +/- 33, and 283 +/- 31 mumol X kg-1 X h-1, respectively. The glutamine amide N appearance rate was 20% slower than the amino N appearance rate, indicating that glutamine transaminase is an active pathway in human glutamine metabolism. From measurement of transfer of tracer 15N, we found that only 5% of the glutamine synthesized in cells and released into plasma was derived from intracellular glutamate that had mixed with plasma. These data demonstrate that intravenously administered tracers of glutamate or glutamine do not mix thoroughly with the intracellular pools, and their measured kinetics reflect transport rates through plasma rather than whole-body fluxes.