Although blood flow to the renal cortex is high and oxygen extraction is low, the renal cortex is remarkably susceptible to hypoxia. Because erythropoietin production has been localized mainly to the renal cortex, the aim of this study was to find a common denominator for both the high susceptibility to hypoxia and oxygen sensing within the renal cortex. By direct measurement of oxygen pressure with microcoaxial needle sensors at superficial glomeruli of the in situ kidney of anesthetized Munich-Wistar-Frömter rats, we obtained mean partial pressure of O2 (PO2) values of 46 +/- 13 (SD) mmHg (n = 71). The simultaneously measured systemic PO2 in arterial blood was 90 +/- 8 mmHg (n = 54). Changing the respirator gas from air to pure oxygen enhanced systemic arterial PO2 to 593 +/- 27 mmHg, whereas PO2 at the superficial glomeruli increased only to a mean of 80 +/- 28 mmHg (n = 71). These data suggest significant preglomerular shunting of oxygen within the cortical vasculature, most likely between interlobular vessels, which are arranged in a countercurrent fashion and represent quantitatively the largest contact area between arteries and veins within the renal cortex.