Using ultrafiltration by centrifugation we have isolated the free, unbound fractions of insulin-like growth factor I and II (free IGF-I and IGF-II) in human serum. In this way near in vivo conditions could be maintained before and during isolation. The recovery was 80 to 100% in the ultrafiltrates, which contained no detectable amounts of IGF-binding proteins (IGFBPs) as measured by Western ligand blotting and IGFBP-1 and IGFBP-3 immunoassays. The concentration of free peptides was measured in two ultrasensitive non-competitive IGF-I and IGF-II time-resolved fluoroimmunoassays. We found that (i) equilibrium between free and protein-complexed IGF was strongly dependent on re-establishment of in vivo conditions (temperature, pH, ionic milieu and dilution); (ii) metabolic events (glucose load and fasting) caused significant changes in free IGF-I and IGF-II levels without concomitant changes in total circulating levels of IGFs; (iii) in 49 healthy adult subjects (20 to above 60 years) free IGF-I was inversely related to age and ranged from 950 +/- 150 ng/l (mean +/- S.E.M.) (20-30 years) to 410 +/- 70 ng/l (> 60 years). The relative percentage was, however, unchanged, being 0.38 +/- 0.02% of total IGF-I. In contrast, free IGF-II was independent of age, being 1,480 +/- 80 ng/l (approximately 0.20 +/- 0.01% of total IGF-II).