Using the substrate H-D-Pro-Phe-Arg-p-nitroanilide-HCl, an amidolytic assay was designed to measure prekallikrein in plasma. At a substrate concentration of 1 mM (Km = 0.2 mM), the amidolysis of purified kallikrein at 1 coagulant unit/ml was observed to be 2.47 mumole/min/ml. Conditions for plasma prekallikrein activation were optimized to approach complete activation when compared to the amidolytic activity of the purified plasma kallikrein. Plasma treated with chloroform to destroy inhibitors of kallikrein was activated with dilute kaolin (final concentration 1 mg/ml) for 1 min at 25 degrees C. Activated plasma prekallikrein had 78% (1.92 mumole/min/ml) of activity of purified kallikrein at plasma concentration. Comparison of this amidolytic assay with immunochemical, esterolytic, and coagulant assays of three subject populations (normals, women on birth control pills, and patients with hepatocellular disease) showed good correlation both in normals and in the patient groups between the amidolytic and esterolytic assays (r = 0.89). Each enzymatic assay correlated with the immunochemical assay (r = 0.72, r = 0.68, respectively). However, comparison of each of these assays with the coagulant assay showed no significant correlation due to the large inherent error of the latter assay. This standardized plasma prekallikrein amidolytic assay should facilitate studies of plasma prekallikrein concentration in physiologic and pathologic conditions and help identify activation of the contact phase of coagulation in disease states.