This study examines the clearance and early hydrolysis of atrial natriuretic factor (ANF) in vivo. Radiolabeled ANF was cleared from the circulation of the rat with biphasic kinetics; the majority (90%) of ANF cleared with a t1/2 of 15 s, the remaining peptide was cleared with a t1/2 of 5 min. Microsequence analysis of ANF peptides recovered from the circulation of rats revealed five major degradation products of the intact hormone. The first cleavage occurred between amino acids 12 and 13 of the hormone and would inactivate ANF. Over time, additional fragments of the hormone were generated, including fragments of 6, 7, 21, and 24 amino acids in length. Whole body radioautography of rats injected with [123I]-ANF revealed the kidney as a predominant organ involved in clearance of ANF. Subsequent amino acid sequence analyses of radiolabeled ANF exposed to the kidney in vivo indicated that this organ generated four of the five major hydrolysis products observed in circulation, namely, the 6, 7, 16, and 21 amino acid fragments of the hormone. In an attempt to stabilize ANF in vivo, a synthetic analogue of the hormone was prepared that contained the amino acid analogue, aminoisobutyric acid, substituted at position 13. This analogue completely abolished the in vivo cleavage of ANF at this site. These studies demonstrate the usefulness of a protein chemistry approach in characterizing hormone metabolism in vivo and designing analogues with enhanced in vivo stability to cleavage.