Iron, which has been shown to accumulate within proximal tubule lysosomes in proteinuric models of renal disease, may play a role in the progression of chronic renal disease by the generation of reactive oxygen species. Therefore, renal biopsies from humans with proteinuria and/or chronic renal failure were examined at an ultrastructural level for iron by energy dispersive analysis and compared with normal biopsies. Iron accumulated in proximal tubular lysosomes in renal disease (P < 0.05 v normals), accompanied in some cases by phosphorus and silicon. Both the number of iron-containing lysosomes per tubular cross-section (1.86 +/- 0.41 v 0.66 +/- 0.22, P < 0.05) and the mean concentration of lysosomal iron (254.5 +/- 73.4 mg/dL v 81.2 +/- 23.8, P < 0.001) was greater in patients with nephrotic syndrome (n = 12) than in those without (n = 8). Iron accumulation (number of iron-containing lysosomes/tubule) correlated with protein excretion (r = 0.68, P = 0.003, n = 20), but not with glomerular filtration rate. Damaged tubules contained greater amounts of iron than tubules with less damage (288.5 +/- 68.5 mg/dL v 80.4 +/- 13.9, P < 0.01). Further studies are needed to define the possible role of iron in causing tubular damage and progression of renal disease.