In vitro studies of parathyroid hormone (PTH) structure and function have suggested that the anabolic effect of PTH on bone requires the presence of amino acid residues 28-34 (domains for protein kinase C activation and mitogenic activity), but not amino acid residues 1-7 (adenylate cyclase activation domain). We have tested this hypothesis with in vivo studies of human PTH (hPTH) analogs. Serum biomarkers and selected histomorphometric parameters of bone formation and resorption were assessed in adult, female, Sprague-Dawley rats following 19 daily injections of vehicle, 10 micrograms/kg body weight (bw) of hPTH(1-38), or a dose range of 10, 40, and 100 micrograms/100 g bw of hPTH(2-38) or hPTH(3-38). Treatment with hPTH(1-38) increased serum osteocalcin, the percentage of osteoblast surface, percentage of osteoid surface, percentage of bone volume, trabecular thickness, and bone formation rate, while it decreased the percentage of osteoclast surface. The hPTH(2-38) fragment exhibited 10%-25% of the in vivo anabolic activity of hPTH(1-38), while it had no effect on the percentage of osteoclast surface. The hPTH(3-38) fragment exhibited no biological activity on bone. In contrast, serum INS-PTH (intact-N-terminal specific PTH) levels were similarly and significantly increased above control in rats treated with hPTH(1-38), hPTH(2-38), or hPTH(3-38) at the same dose. This preliminary finding suggests that the differential activity of these peptides on bone is not due to differences in the circulating level of immunoreactive PTH (intact and amino-terminal fragments of PTH from endogenous and exogenous sources) several hours after PTH injection. However, we can draw no conclusion regarding the relative clearance rates of these peptides. Last, because hPTH(3-38) was without any detectable biological activity on rat bone in vivo, its mitogenic activity was confirmed in two osteoblast-like cell lines. In summary, the anabolic effect of hPTH(1-38) on bone in vivo was (1) diminished by removal of amino acid residue 1, and (2) abolished by the removal of amino acid residues 1 and 2. Although these findings suggest that the therapeutic benefits of exogenous PTH administration may depend upon activation of not only protein kinase C, but also adenylate cyclase, they do not rule out a differential PTH response due to other causes, e.g., metabolic inactivation.