Neoplasms with rhabdoid features have been reported at many anatomic sites. In the kidney, rhabdoid tumors are typically found in children, whereas only rare examples have been reported in adults. Little is known of renal cell carcinomas (RCCs) that exhibit rhabdoid features. The objective of this study was to determine the incidence of RCC with rhabdoid attributes and characterize the histologic, immunophenotypic, and ultrastructural features by retrospective analysis of 480 consecutively identified cases of RCC in radical nephrectomy specimens. Immunohistochemical evaluation was performed in cases with rhabdoid foci using a panel of antibodies to pancytokeratin (pan-CK), CK7, CK20, epithelial membrane antigen (EMA), S-100 protein, desmin, vimentin, neuron-specific enolase (NSE), muscle-specific actin (MSA), smooth muscle actin (SMA), human melanoma, black-45 (HMB-45), and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP). Electron microscopy was also performed in selected cases. The presence and extent of rhabdoid foci in relation to pathologic stage and grade were assessed. Twenty-three of 480 cases of RCC (4.7%) exhibited rhabdoid features. The 23 patients were all adults with a mean age of 61.8 years (age range, 33-84 yrs). Fifteen of the patients were men and eight were women. Histologically, the rhabdoid foci were typified by sheets and clusters of variably cohesive, large epithelioid cells with vesicular and often eccentric nuclei, prominent nucleoli, and large, paranuclear intracytoplasmic hyaline globules (inclusions). The presence of these rhabdoid features was related to high histologic Fuhrman grade of the nonrhabdoid carcinoma component, with an incidence of 0 of 84 grade I cases, eight of 300 grade 2 cases (2.6%), six of 70 grade 3 cases (8.9%), and nine of 26 grade 4 cases (34.6%; p = 3 x 10(-9)). The rhabdoid foci were all high grade. The presence of rhabdoid foci was also found in higher stage carcinomas. A total of 52% (12 of 23) of RCC cases with rhabdoid features exhibited extrarenal extension compared with 28% (24 of 92) of contemporary RCCs without rhabdoid features (p = 0.03). The size of the rhabdoid component ranged from 1 mm to more than 2 cm and comprised 1% to 50% of the renal mass. Immunoreactivity for vimentin (100%), NSE (79%), and panCK (56%) was present in the majority of cases. Substantial percentages of cases were immunopositive for EMA (47%) and S-100 protein (37%), with minimal to no immunohistochemical reactivity for CK7 (5%), SMA (5%), CK20 (0%), desmin (0%), MSA (0%), HMB-45 (0%), and GFAP (O%). A distinctive globular, paranuclear reaction pattern was found for the cytokeratin, EMA, and vimentin immunostains. Ultrastructurally, the rhabdoid cells had paranuclear intermediate filament aggregates or paranuclear condensation of organelles, often associated with peripheral vacuolization. Adult RCCs may harbor a rhabdoid component, and these neoplasms can be regarded as "composite" tumors. Rhabdoid elements are important to identify because of their high-grade nature, and association with high stage. Adult RCC with rhabdoid elements should be distinguished from pure rhabdoid tumors of kidney, in light of their clinicopathologic differences. Rhabdoid differentiation in adult renal cell carcinoma may represent clonal divergence and/ or evolution, and emergence of a particularly aggressive element.