It has been proposed that low birth weight (LBW) results in a reduction in glomerular number that may, in turn, predispose an individual to develop hypertension in adulthood. Glomerular number is reduced in animal models of intra-uterine malnutrition using a variety of techniques. However, the relevance of such extreme models to man is uncertain. The purpose of this study was to evaluate whether animals with naturally occurring LBW, which have not received any manipulation in utero, have a reduction in glomerular number, altered glomerular volume and abnormal urine albumin excretion. Litters from female rats delivering at term on the same day were weighed and sexed at birth. From each litter 2 males with the lowest birth weight (LBW n = 18) and 2 males with a birth weight closest to the litter mean [normal birth weight (NBW) n = 18] were selected and cross-fostered onto periparturient lactating dams. LBW rats weighted 6.7 +/- 0.6 g compared with 7.2 +/- 0.6 g for NBW rats (P = 0.03). After weaning all rats were weighed weekly and underwent metabolic studies at 4, 8, 12 and 16 weeks. Following perfusion fixation, glomerular number and mean glomerular volume were estimated using standard stereological techniques. There was no significant difference between LBW and NBW rats with respect to glomerular number (24,499 +/- 2,078 vs. 24,825 +/- 1,818), mean glomerular volume and urine albumin excretion, and no rats had a glomerular number outside the normal range. This study suggests that naturally occurring LBW has little influence on renal development, glomerular number and volume.