The mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) is a serine/threonine kinase that plays a fundamental role in regulating cellular homeostasis and metabolism. In a two-part review, we examine the complex molecular events involved in the regulation and downstream effects of mTOR, as well as the pivotal role played by this kinase in many renal diseases, particularly acute kidney injury, diabetic nephropathy, and polycystic kidney diseases. Here, in the first part of the review, we provide an overview of the complex signaling events and pathways governing mTOR activity and action. mTOR is a key component of two multiprotein complexes, known as mTOR complex 1 (mTORC1) and 2 (mTORC2). Some proteins are found in both mTORC1 and mTORC2, while others are unique to one or the other complex. Activation of mTORC1 promotes cell growth (increased cellular mass or size) and cell proliferation (increased cell number). mTORC1 acts as a metabolic "sensor," ensuring that conditions are optimal for both cell growth and proliferation. Its activity is tightly regulated by the availability of amino acids, growth factors, energy stores, and oxygen. The effects of mTORC2 activation are distinct from those of mTORC1. Cellular processes modulated by mTORC2 include cell survival, cell polarity, cytoskeletal organization, and activity of the aldosterone-sensitive sodium channel. Upstream events controlling mTORC2 activity are less well understood than those controlling mTORC1, although growth factors appear to stimulate both complexes. Rapamycin and its analogs inhibit the activity of mTORC1 only, and not that of mTORC2, while the newer "catalytic" mTOR inhibitors affect both complexes.