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Atrial natriuretic peptide, brain natriuretic peptide and C-type natriuretic peptide belong to a family of hormones that have diuretic, natriuretic and vasodepressor activity and play a part in pressure and volume homeostasis in adults. As little is known about the natriuretic peptides during cardiac maturation, this review summarizes current knowledge about the early expression of components of the natriuretic peptide system in the heart during embryonic and fetal development. The data indicate a functional importance of the fetal natriuretic peptide system, especially under pathophysiological conditions. Thus, in the fetus, the system fulfils important beneficial compensatory roles in cardiovascular disease, rather than in day-to-day pressure and volume homeostasis. In comparison with data on the relevance of natriuretic peptides in adults, those summarized here indicate a functional maturation of the natriuretic peptide system during ontogeny in mammals.