To elucidate the physiologic basis of multicompartmental systems used to model drug distribution, we studied inulin and 15N2-urea kinetics after simultaneous intravenous injection in five normal subjects. Distribution of both compounds was characterized by three-compartment models in which the central compartment corresponded to intravascular space. The mean distribution volumes of 0.164 +/- 0.009 L/kg (+/- SD) for inulin and of 0.670 +/- 0.143 L/kg for urea were similar to expected values for extracellular space and total body water, respectively. Distribution from intravascular space was kinetically heterogeneous, presumably reflecting differences in vascular beds supplied by either fenestrated and discontinuous capillaries or capillaries with a continuous basement membrane. Intercompartmental clearances of inulin and urea and the ratio of their free water diffusion coefficients were used to estimate blood flows and permeability coefficient-surface area products for the peripheral compartments. The sum of compartmental blood flows averaged 5.39 +/- 0.49 L/min and was similar to dual-beam Doppler measurements of cardiac output (5.47 +/- 0.40 L/min).