It has been postulated that hyperparathyroidism in chronic renal failure results from hypocalcemia, occurring, in part, from phosphate retention and/or deficient 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 [1,25-(OH)2D3] synthesis. However, many studies have failed to demonstrate hyperphosphatemia or low 1,25-(OH)2D levels in patients with mild renal failure. We measured creatinine clearance (CCr), fractional excretion of phosphorus (FEP), and serum phosphorus, ionized calcium, and plasma N-terminal PTH, and 1,25-(OH)2D concentrations in 21 normal subjects and 51 patients with renal failure. Patients with mild renal failure (Ccr, greater than 40 mL/min.1.73 m2) had normal mean serum phosphorus and ionized calcium and decreased mean 1,25-(OH)2D levels compared with those in normal subjects. In patients with moderate renal failure (CCr, 20-40), the mean ionized calcium level was normal, plasma PTH levels and FEP were elevated, and the decrement in 1,25-(OH)2D was more pronounced. The mean ionized calcium level was decreased only in the group of patients with severe renal failure (CCr, less than 20). The 1,25-(OH)2D values correlated positively with CCr and negatively with the log of plasma PTH and serum phosphorus concentrations. Log of plasma PTH correlated negatively with CCr and positively with FEP. The ionized calcium concentration correlated very weakly with CCr and the log of the plasma PTH level. These data demonstrate the presence of hyperparathyroidism, normocalcemia, and 1,25-(OH)2D deficiency in renal failure and are consistent with a role for 1,25-(OH)2D in the suppression of parathyroid activity through as yet unidentified mechanisms.