1. The major cardiovascular and renal actions of alpha-atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) and brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) and the fact that the heart is strategically located to sense changes in intravascular volume indicate the importance of these peptides in the overall control of the extracellular fluid volume under normal and pathophysiological conditions.2. This review examines the clinical and diagnostic significance of the measurement of plasma natriuretic peptides in diseases of the cardiovascular system with particular emphasis on the assessment of patients with heart failure. 3. Raised plasma levels of ANP and BNP have repeatedly been found in patients with heart disease originating from diverse causes including tachycardias, valvular stenosis or ventricular dysfunction. The raised circulating levels of natriuretic peptide (ANP, N-terminal proANP and BNP in particular) are associated with (i) raised atrial and pulmonary wedge pressures; (ii) reduced ventricular systolic and diastolic function; (iii) presence (and possibly geometric form) of left ventricular hypertrophy; and (iv) severe myocardial infarction. Although both plasma ANP and BNP are raised in the presence of left ventricular hypertrophy, BNP appears to be a better index of left ventricular hypertrophy.4. Several situations where the measurement of natriuretic peptides may be of benefit in the overall assessment of heart disease are discussed. However, it is emphasized that the measurement of plasma natriuretic peptides alone appears to be of limited value as a specific diagnostic tool, given that raised levels are a consequence of haemodynamic and structural abnormalities arising from diverse pathological processes. Despite these limitations, the major value of plasma natriuretic peptides in the examination of patients with suspected heart disease rests on the premise that: (i) a normal value would not be consistent with cardiac disease; (ii) the presence of markedly raised levels may help to target those for subsequent detailed assessment of underlying cardiac dysfunction; and (iii) markedly raised levels of plasma natriuretic peptides after myocardial infarction can identify those at high risk of death.