The human end-stage kidney and its experimental analogue, the remnant kidney in the rat, exhibit widespread tubulo-interstitial disease. We investigated whether the pathogenesis of such tubulo-interstitial injury is dependent upon adaptive changes in tubular function and, in particular, in ammonia production when renal mass is reduced. Dietary acid load was reduced in 1 3/4-nephrectomized rats by dietary supplementation with sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), while control rats, paired for serum creatinine after 1 3/4 nephrectomy, were supplemented with equimolar sodium chloride. After 4-6 wk, NaHCO3-supplemented rats demonstrated less impairment of tubular function as measured by urinary excretory rates for total protein and low molecular weight protein and higher transport maximum for para-aminohippurate per unit glomerular filtration rate, less histologic evidence of tubulo-interstitial damage, less deposition of complement components C3 and C5b-9, and a lower renal vein total ammonia concentration. Such differences in tubular function could not be accounted for simply on the basis of systemic alkalinization, and differences in tubular injury could not be ascribed to differences in glomerular function. Because nitrogen nucleophiles such as ammonia react with C3 to form a convertase for the alternative complement pathway, and because increased tissue levels of ammonia are associated with increased tubulo-interstitial injury, we propose that augmented intrarenal levels of ammonia are injurious because of activation of the alternative complement pathway. Chemotactic and cytolytic complement components are thereby generated, leading to tubulo-interstitial inflammation. Thus, alkali supplementation reduces chronic tubulo-interstitial disease in the remnant kidney of the rat, and we propose that this results, at least in part, from reduction in cortical ammonia and its interaction with the alternative complement pathway.