Acute kidney injury (AKI) is a common and serious condition, the diagnosis of which depends on serum creatinine measurements. Unfortunately, creatinine is a delayed and unreliable indicator of AKI. The lack of early biomarkers has crippled our ability to translate promising experimental therapies to human AKI. Fortunately, understanding the early stress response of the kidney to acute injuries has revealed a number of potential biomarkers. The discovery, translation and validation of neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin, arguably the most promising novel AKI biomarker, are reviewed in this article. Neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin is emerging as an excellent standalone troponin-like biomarker in the plasma and urine for the prediction of AKI, monitoring clinical trials in AKI and for the prognosis of AKI in several common clinical scenarios.