Adaptation to hypoxic environment is conferred through hypoxia-inducible transcription factors (HIFs). We have previously shown that the HIF system is transiently activated in vivo in radiocontrast-induced acute renal failure, associated with profound hypoxia in the renal medulla. Medullary thick ascending limbs (mTALs), the most affected nephron segments in this model, were virtually unable to mount an adaptive HIF response. Here, we study correlations between oxygenation, HIF activation, and cell viability in a related ex vivo model, the isolated perfused rat kidney (IPK). In IPKs perfused with cell-free oxygenated medium, severe medullary hypoxic damage developed, affecting 42+/-9% of mTALs in the mid-inner stripe. HIF-1alpha tubular immunostaining was noted with a zonal and tubular pattern largely similar to our findings in vivo: in 34+/-3% of collecting ducts (CDs) within the mid-inner stripe and extensively in the papillary tip, whereas mTALs were all HIF-negative. In IPKs supplemented with RBCs (improved oxygen supply), mTAL damage was totally prevented and CDs' HIF expression was attenuated (22+/-4%). By contrast, although measures designed to reduce medullary hypoxia by decreasing tubular reabsorptive activity (furosemide, ouabain, or high-albumin-non-filtering system) reduced mTAL damage, all paradoxically resulted in increased HIF expression in CDs (51+/-4%), and 17+/-3% of mTALs became immunostained as well. Our data confirm that CDs and mTALs have markedly different HIF responses, which correlate with their viability under hypoxic stress. mTALs transcriptional adaptation occurs within a narrow hypoxic range, and it appears that workload reduction can shift mTALs into this window of opportunity for HIF activation and survival.