Atrial natriuretic factor (ANF) is stored in mammalian atria primarily as ANF-(1-126), the precursor to the known circulating form of the hormone ANF-(99-126). When primary cultures of atrial myocytes were maintained in a complete serum-free medium, they contained and secreted an ANF-(1-126)-like peptide. The addition of dexamethasone to the culture medium, however, resulted in the secretion of a molecule with chromatographic characteristics identical to ANF-(99-126), although the intracellular storage form of ANF was unchanged. Radiosequencing and amino acid analysis confirmed that the cultures maintained in dexamethasone secreted authentic ANF-(99-126). Chronic exposure of the cells to dexamethasone also resulted in a significant increase in the quantity of immunoreactive ANF both contained and secreted by the cultures. Dexamethasone stimulated ANF processing and secretion by atrial cultures in a dose-dependent manner, with an approximate EC50 of 10 nM. This stimulation could be reversed by removing the glucocorticoid from the culture medium. ANF processing was also stimulated by the specific glucocorticoid receptor agonist RU 28362, and both DEX- and RU 28362-stimulated ANF processing was inhibited by the specific glucocorticoid receptor antagonist RU 38486. Ventricular cells, which possess few granules and release ANF in a constitutive fashion, were also capable of processing ANF in a glucocorticoid-dependent fashion. Medium freshly removed from atrial cultures did not convert ANF-(1-126) to ANF-(99-126) nor was exogenous ANF-(1-126) efficiently processed when added to the medium of actively processing cultures. These results indicate that the post-translational processing of ANF-(1-126) to ANF-(99-126) likely occurs within or in close association with the cardiac myocytes and is not dependent on the presence of large quantities of secretory granules. Furthermore, it is apparent that both the expression and the post-translational processing of ANF by cultured cardiac myocytes is specifically regulated by glucocorticoids.