We have developed a sensitive two-site immunoradiometric assay (IRMA) for intact ACTH and its precursors, pro-opiomelanocortin and 22 kDa peptide in unextracted human plasma. The assay uses two monoclonal antibodies. Antibody 1A12, specific for ACTH 10-18, is radiolabelled and antibody 2A3 specific for the C-terminal region (ACTH 24-39), is coupled to Sephacryl S300 for the solid-phase. Samples are incubated for 18 h with labelled antibody followed by 2 h with solid-phase antibody. Separation employs the sucrose layering technique. Using human pituitary ACTH 1-39 (code 74/555) in diluent containing 10% horse serum to standardize the assay, the sensitivity (upper 99% confidence limit of zero standard) is 3.5 +/- 0.8 ng/l (n - 7). The mean coefficient of variation is 5.9% within-assay and 6.7% between-assay and is less than 10% between 22 and greater than 5000 ng/l. Mean recovery of ACTH 1-39 added to dexamethasone-suppressed human plasma is 109% and endogenous ACTH behaves indistinguishably from standard ACTH on dilution. In normal subjects, mean plasma ACTH levels are 30 ng/l at 0730 h, and 15 ng/l at 1630 h at rest. ACTH concentrations are between 60 and 330 ng/l, 8-10.5 h after metyrapone (2 g orally at 2300 h), between 140 and 320 ng/l, 30-60 min after insulin-induced hypoglycaemia, and less than 4 ng/l, 8 h after dexamethasone (1.5 mg orally at 2300 h). In a range of pathological conditions ACTH concentrations accurately reflect the disorders of the pituitary-adrenal axis. Endogenous ACTH immunoactivity is stable in vitro at 22 degrees C for at least 1 h in whole blood and at least 4 h in plasma. It is concluded that this two-site IRMA for ACTH in unextracted plasma offers a reliable assay for clinical purposes.