The renal vascular actions of atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) remain incompletely understood. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the effects of ANP on microvascular structures of the normal kidney. The in vitro blood-perfused juxtamedullary nephron technique was utilized to allow visualization of arcuate arteries and afferent and efferent arterioles. Donor rats were pretreated with captopril to eliminate possible interactions between angiotensin II and atriopeptin III (AP III). The effects of topical administration of 3 nM AP III were determined by videometric analysis of vessel inside diameters. Under control conditions, arcuate arterial diameter averaged 83 +/- 14 microns (n = 7), afferent arteriolar diameter was 20 +/- 4 microns (n = 7), and efferent arteriolar diameter was 16 +/- 2 microns (n = 7). During superfusion with AP III, arcuate arteries and afferent arterioles dilated 73 +/- 9 and 23 +/- 5%, respectively. Both returned to their control values when AP III was removed from the superfusate. Further experiments on arcuate arteries (n = 5) revealed that 0.3 nM AP III also vasodilated these vessels (26 +/- 9%); however, no significant effect was elicited by 0.03 nM AP III. In contrast to the vasodilator influence of AP III on preglomerular vessels, efferent arteriolar diameter was not altered by AP III exposure. These observations reveal that AP III can induce selective preglomerular vasodilation involving arcuate arteries as well as afferent arterioles, while efferent arteriolar diameter is not perceptibly influenced.