To identify the structural change coincident with increased glomerular permeability in both adriamycin (ADR) and puromycin-aminonucleoside (PAN) nephrosis, we explored the temporal correlation between developing proteinuria, the reduction in glomerular polyanions, and the detachment of epithelium from glomerular basement membrane (GBM). Sprague-Dawley rats received a single tail-vein injection of PAN (150 mg/kg), ADR (7.5 mg/kg) or saline. Nephrotic-range proteinuria appeared between days 2 to 5 in the PAN-treated and days 5 to 10 in the ADR-treated rats. The GBM heparan sulfate charge density and epithelial membrane sialic acid (SA) content were determined before, during and after the rise in proteinuria. Polyethyleneimine was used to detect heparan sulfate and the number staining of renal cortical slices was used to detect heparin sulfate and the number of sites/microns GBM in the lamina rara externa were counted on electron micrographs (magnification x60,000). Controls had a regular distribution of polyethyleneimine 20.19 +/- 1.72 sites/microns (X + SD). In ADR rats, the polyethyleneimine density decreased by day 5, 18.61 +/- 1.79 sites/microns (p less than 0.05) which persisted to day 15, 17.38 +/- 1.27 sites/microns (p less than 0.02). PAN rats, by day 1, had significant reduction, 14.94 +/- 1.47 sites/microns (p less than 0.05), which persisted to day 20. The total membrane-bound SA content of isolated glomeruli was analyzed with a modified Warren's method. The SA content in control glomeruli was 46.8 +/- 8.0 nmol/mg glomerular protein (X +/- SD). In ADR rats, there was significant decrease in SA content to 84 +/- 3% of control (p less than 0.01) at day 15. In PAN rats, by day 2, the SA content was decreased to 73 +/- 18% of control (p less than 0.05). In both models, scanning and transmission electron microscopy revealed epithelial foot process fusion, loss of slit diaphragms, and vacuolization before increased proteinuria. Epithelial detachment from the GBM and rupture of vacuoles occurred coincidently with rapid development of nephrotic proteinuria in both models. In summary, reduced GBM heparan sulfate and epithelial SA content do not correlate with the onset of altered glomerular permeability, whereas epithelial detachment is coincident with the development of massive proteinuria in both ADR and PAN nephrosis.