This study was designed to investigate the effect of protein intake on glomerular filtration rate, and to demonstrate and evaluate the functional reserve of the kidney. Normal subjects ingesting a protein diet had a significantly higher creatinine clearance than a comparable group of normal subjects ingesting a vegetarian diet. A progressive increment in protein intake in normal volunteers resulted in a significant increase in creatinine clearance. Diurnal variations in creatinine clearance were found. These daily variations correlated well with the periods of food intake. The capacity of the kidney to increase its level of function with protein intake suggests a renal function reserve. In short-term studies, the effect of a protein load on glomerular filtration rate was evaluated. Normal subjects showed an increase in glomerular filtration rate two and a half hours after protein load to a maximal glomerular filtration rate of 171.0 +/- 7.7 ml per minute. In patients with a reduced number of nephrons, renal functional reserve may be diminished or absent.