Glucagon exerts an up-regulatory effect on hepatic nitrogen metabolism in healthy subjects, but its potential role in the presence of liver failure is uncertain. The effects of glucagon on urea synthesis and hepatic nitrogen clearance during alanine infusion were studied in five control subjects and six cirrhotic patients in paired experiments at spontaneous glucagon concentrations and at high physiological glucagon levels (approximately 300 to 500 pmol.L-1) induced by a 7.5-hr continuous glucagon infusion. In all experiments the urea nitrogen synthesis rate increased linearly with increasing alpha-amino-nitrogen concentrations. At spontaneous glucagon concentrations the dynamics of alpha-amino nitrogen to urea nitrogen conversion (functional hepatic nitrogen clearance) were significantly reduced in cirrhosis (23.2 +/- 6.7 L.hr-1 vs. 35.3 +/- 8.0 L.hr-1, p < 0.05) in relation to decreased liver function. Glucagon superinfusion caused a 63% increase in the dynamics of the process in controls (57.7 +/- 11.0 L.hr-1; p vs. spontaneous glucagon, p < 0.01), whereas in cirrhosis it increased on average by only 15% (26.7 +/- 10.7; p = NS). The glucagon-induced change in functional hepatic nitrogen clearance significantly correlated with galactose elimination capacity and antipyrine clearance (r = 0.905 and 0.964, respectively). Glucagon, in high physiological concentrations achieved with glucagon infusion, does not produce significant effects on hepatic nitrogen metabolism in cirrhosis. The reduced sensitivity of the cirrhotic liver to glucagon seems to be dependent on decreased hepatocellular function. These data do not support the role of glucagon as a "catabolic" hormone in cirrhosis.