Improved mechanistic understanding of renal cell death in acute kidney injury (AKI) has generated new therapeutic targets. Clearly, the classic lesion of acute tubular necrosis is not adequate to describe the consequences of renal ischemia, nephrotoxin exposure, or sepsis on glomerular filtration rate. Experimental evidence supports a pathogenic role for apoptosis in AKI. Interestingly, proximal tubule epithelial cells are highly susceptible to apoptosis, and injury at this site contributes to organ failure. During apoptosis, well-orchestrated events converge at the mitochondrion, the organelle that integrates life and death signals generated by the BCL2 (B-cell lymphoma 2) protein family. Death requires the 'perfect storm' for outer mitochondrial membrane injury to release its cellular 'executioners'. The complexity of this process affords new targets for effective interventions, both before and after renal insults. Inhibiting apoptosis appears to be critical, because circulating factors released by the injured kidney induce apoptosis and inflammation in distant organs including the heart, lung, liver, and brain, potentially contributing to the high morbidity and mortality associated with AKI. Manipulation of known stress kinases upstream of mitochondrial injury, induction of endogenous, anti-apoptotic proteins, and improved understanding of the timing and consequences of renal cell apoptosis will inevitably improve the outcome of human AKI.