Evidence suggests an important role for the renin-angiotensin system in the pathogenesis of autosomal-dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD). Therefore, we studied the presence of immunoreactive renin in renal biopsies and measured the concentrations of renin in cyst fluids. Normal kidneys and kidneys with renal artery stenosis were used for comparison. In ADPKD, immunoreactive renin was present in juxtaglomerular apparatus, associated arterioles, and in some cells within the connective tissue surrounding the cysts. Vascular immunoreactive renin was less prominent than in renal artery stenosis. Increased amounts of tubular immunoreactive renin were noted in polycystic kidneys, as compared to normal kidneys and kidneys with renal artery stenosis. Cyst fluids contained renin detected by Western analysis and enzymatic activity; concentrations were greater in gradient cysts than in nongradient cysts. Seventy-four percent of the renin in gradient cysts was active as compared to 23% in nongradient cysts and 15% in plasma. To determine whether cyst epithelial cells are capable of synthesizing renin, these cells were isolated in tissue culture. Enzymatic assay of extracts from these cells revealed the presence of renin-like enzymatic activity (1.3 +/- 0.8 ng AI/mg protein/hr). The synthesis of renin by tubulocystic epithelium was confirmed by [35S]-methionine radiolabeling of cyst-derived cells, followed by immunoprecipitation and SDS-PAGE and by detection of renin mRNA by the polymerase chain reaction. These results indicate that the tubulocystic epithelium has the potential to synthesize renin. Elevated levels of active renin in renal cysts may be linked to the pathogenesis of hypertension in ADPKD. The occurrence of renin in the lining epithelium of cyst walls raises the possibility that abnormal expression of the renin-angiotensin system may, by a paracrine or autocrine mechanism, regulate epithelial hyperplasia in growing renal cysts.