The hyperparathyroidism characteristic of patients with moderate renal insufficiency could be caused by decreases in the plasma concentration of ionized calcium (Ca++) evoked by: (a) recurring increases in the plasma concentration of inorganic phosphorus that may be detectable only in the post-prandial period; (b) a reversible, phosphorus-mediated suppression of renal 25-hydroxyvitamin D-1 alpha-hydroxylase that decreases the plasma concentration of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D (1,25-(OH)2D) enough to decrease both gut absorption and bone resorption of Ca++; (c) both of these. In a group of eight children with moderate renal insufficiency, mean glomerular filtration rate (GFR) 45 +/- 4 (SE) ml/min per 1.73 M2, ages 6-17 yr, we tested these hypotheses by determining the effect of short term (5 d) restriction and supplementation of dietary intake of phosphorus on the plasma concentration of 1,25-(OH)2D, the serum concentrations of immunoreactive parathyroid hormone (iPTH) and phosphorus, and the fractional renal excretion of phosphorus ( FEPi ). When dietary phosphorus was normal, 1.2 g/d, the serum concentrations of phosphorus throughout the day were not greater than those of normal control children, and the serum concentrations of carboxyl-terminal iPTH (C-iPTH) were greater, 59 +/- 9 vs. 17 +/- 3 mu leq/ml, and unchanging; the serum concentration of intact-iPTH was also greater, 198 +/- 14 vs. 119 +/- 8 pg/ml. The plasma concentration of 1,25-(OH)2D was lower than that of age-matched controls, 27 +/- 3 vs. 36 +/- 2 pg/ml (P less than 0.01). When dietary phosphorus was restricted to 0.35 g/d, the plasma concentration of 1,25-(OH)2D increased by 60% to a mean value not different from that of normal controls, while serum concentrations of C-iPTH and intact-iPTH decreased by 25%, the latter concentration to a mean value not different from that of controls. FEPi decreased from 31 to 9%. When dietary phosphorus was supplemented to 2.4 g/d, the plasma concentration of 1,25-(OH)2D decreased 32%, while those of C-iPTH and intact-iPTH increased by 131 and 45%, respectively; FEPi increased from 27 to 53%. Plasma concentrations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D remained normal and unchanged, and GFR did not change when dietary phosphorus was manipulated. The data demonstrate that in children with moderate renal insufficiency: (a) A normal dietary intake of phosphorus in attended by a decreased circulating concentration of 1,25-(OH)2D and an increased concentration of iPTH, but not by recurring increases in the serum concentration of phosphorus at any time of the day; (b) Dietary phosphorus is, however, a major determinant of the circulating concentrations of both 1,25-(OH)2D and iPTH, which vary inversely and directly, respectively, with dietary intake of phosphorus, and increase and decrease, respectively, to normal values when phosphorus is restricted for 5 d; (c) Restriction and supplementation of dietary phosphorus induces changes in the serum concentration of iPTH that correlate strongly but inversely with those induced in the plasma concentration of 1,25-(OH)2D (r = -0.88, P < 0.001); and (d) The physiologic responsiveness of the renal tubule to changes in dietary phosphorus is to a substantial extent intact. The data provide support for the second hypothesis stated.