We investigated the hypothesis that hypokalemia might induce renal injury via a mechanism that involves subtle renal injury and alterations in local vasoactive mediators that would favor sodium retention. To test this hypothesis, we conducted studies in rats with diet-induced K+ deficiency. We also determined whether rats with hypokalemic nephropathy show salt sensitivity. Twelve weeks of hypokalemia resulted in a decrease in creatinine clearance, tubulointerstitial injury with macrophage infiltration, interstitial collagen type III deposition, and an increase in osteopontin expression (a tubular marker of injury). The renal injury was greatest in the outer medulla with radiation into the cortex, suggestive of an ischemic etiology. Consistent with this hypothesis, we found an increased uptake of a hypoxia marker, pimonidazole, in the cortex. The intrarenal injury was associated with increased cortical angiontensin-converting enzyme (ACE) expression and continued cortical angiotensin II generation despite systemic suppression of the renin-angiotensin system, an increase in renal endothelin-1, a decrease in renal kallikrein, and a decrease in urinary nitrite/nitrates and prostaglandin E(2) excretion. At 12 wk, hypokalemic rats were placed on a normal-K+ diet with either high (4%)- or low (0.01%)-NaCl content. Despite correction of hypokalemia and normalization of renal function, previously hypokalemic rats showed an elevated blood pressure in response to a high-salt diet compared with normokalemic controls. Hypokalemia is associated with alterations in vasoactive mediators that favor intrarenal vasoconstriction and an ischemic pattern of renal injury. These alterations may predispose the animals to salt-sensitive hypertension that manifests despite normalization of the serum K+.