The microcirculation of the renal medulla traps NaCl and urea deposited to the interstitium by the loops of Henle and collecting ducts. Theories have predicted that countercurrent exchanger efficiency is favored by high permeability to solute. In contrast to the conceptualization of vasa recta as simple "U-tube" diffusive exchangers, many findings have revealed surprising complexity. Tubular-vascular relationships in the outer and inner medulla differ markedly. The wall structure and transport properties of descending vasa recta (DVR) and ascending vasa recta (AVR) are very different. The recent discoveries of aquaporin-1 (AQP1) water channels and the facilitated urea carrier UTB in DVR endothelia show that transcellular as well as paracellular pathways are involved in equilibration of DVR plasma with the interstitium. Efflux of water across AQP1 excludes NaCl and urea, leading to the conclusion that both water abstraction and diffusion contribute to transmural equilibration. Recent theory predicts that loss of water from DVR to the interstitium favors optimization of urinary concentration by shunting water to AVR, secondarily lowering blood flow to the inner medulla. Finally, DVR are vasoactive, arteriolar microvessels that are anatomically positioned to regulate total and regional blood flow to the outer and inner medulla. In this review, we provide historical perspective, describe the current state of knowledge, and suggest areas that are in need of further exploration.