Whereas numerous studies have examined the cardiac tissue content and secretion of atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP), the response of brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) in states of experimental cardiac overload is less well documented. Our recent partial cloning of the ovine BNP gene has enabled us to study changes in cardiac tissue concentration, together with tissue and circulating molecular forms of ANP and BNP, in response to cardiac overload induced by rapid ventricular pacing (n = 7) and aortic coarctation (n = 6). In normal sheep, although highest levels of BNP were found in atrial tissue (15-fold those of the ventricle), the BNP/ANP concentration ratio in the ventricles was 10- to 20-fold higher than the ratio calculated for atrial tissue. Compared with normal sheep, significant depletion of both ANP and BNP concentrations within the left ventricle occurred after rapid ventricular pacing. Size exclusion and reverse phase HPLC analysis of atrial and ventricular tissue extracts from normal and overloaded sheep showed a single peak of high molecular weight BNP consistent with the proBNP hormone. In contrast, immunoreactive BNP extracted from plasma drawn from the coronary sinus was all low molecular weight material. Further analysis of plasma BNP using ion exchange HPLC disclosed at least 3 distinct immunoreactive peaks consistent with ovine BNP forms 26-29 amino acid residues in length. These findings show that BNP is stored as the prohormone in sheep cardiac tissues and that complete processing to mature forms occurs at the time of secretion. The capacity to process the prohormone at secretion is not impaired by chronic heart failure.