The aim of this study was to evaluate the role of renal ammonia and glutamine metabolism in the metabolic adaptation to chronic liver insufficiency-induced hyperammonemia in the rat. To this purpose, urinary excretion, renal net exchange and tissue concentrations of ammonia and amino acids were measured in anesthetized, normal control rats that did not undergo surgery, in control rats that underwent sham surgery, in rats that underwent portacaval shunting and in rats that underwent both portacaval shunting and bile duct ligation. Rats that underwent sham surgery and portacaval shunting were pair-fed with rats that underwent portacaval shunting and biliary obstruction, to correct for anorexia in that group, and all rats that were operated on were studied 7 and 14 days after surgery. Arterial ammonia and glutamine levels were elevated in groups that underwent portacaval shunting and portacaval shunting plus biliary obstruction at all time points. At days 7 and 14, total renal ammonia production decreased in rats that underwent portacaval shunting and in rats that underwent portacaval shunting plus biliary obstruction, associated with a 50% decrease in net renal glutamine uptake and strongly diminished net ammonia release into the renal vein, which was most prominent in the group that underwent portacaval shunting plus biliary obstruction. Urinary ammonia excretion was similar in rats that underwent portacaval shunting and in those that underwent sham surgery but was increased more than 200% at days 7 and 14 in rats that underwent portacaval shunting plus biliary obstruction. In this group, in contrast to portacaval-shunted rats, the kidney appeared to be an organ of net ammonia disposal from the body. In separate experiments in unanesthetized, unrestrained rats, similar changes in urinary ammonia excretion were observed without changes in arterial pH, excluding an effect of anesthesia or pH on the obtained results. These results indicate that the kidney plays an important role in the metabolic adaptation to hyperammonemia during chronic liver insufficiency in the rat. (HEPATOLOGY 1993;18:890-902).