Abnormalities in lipid metabolism frequently accompany renal disease and may be important in the pathogenesis of progressive renal injury. In the present study, the effects of a high cholesterol diet on renal histology, cortical lipids, and glomerular hemodynamic function were examined in normal rats with and without reduced renal mass. Cholesterol feeding for 19 weeks increased serum cholesterol from 66 +/- 10 mg/dl to 256 +/- 93 mg/dl in two-kidney rats, and from 73 +/- 15 mg/dl to 407 +/- 274 mg/dl in nephrectomy rats (P less than 0.01). Both sham-operated and unilateral nephrectomy rats fed a high cholesterol diet had a greater amount of glomerulosclerosis and tubulointerstitial damage than rats fed standard chow. Cortical cholesteryl esters were increased by the cholesterol diet, and correlated with the amount of glomerulosclerosis (r = 0.90, P less than 0.01) and tubulointerstitial injury (r = 0.64, P less than 0.05). Cholesterol feeding and nephrectomy both caused alterations in tissue essential fatty acids, and a panel of specific monoclonal antibodies indicated that renal injury and cortical lipid alterations were associated with an increase in glomerular macrophages. Finally, micropuncture experiments carried out in a separate group of rats fed high cholesterol for 8 to 10 weeks demonstrated increases in glomerular capillary pressure. These results suggest that additional investigations may ultimately determine how cholesterol deposition, altered fatty acid metabolism, macrophages, and increased glomerular pressure might combine to cause chronic progressive renal injury.