Lipid molecules in lipoprotein surfaces exchange with their counterparts in cell plasma membranes. In human or experimental liver disease, plasma lipoprotein surfaces are enriched in cholesterol and deficient in arachidonate; corresponding alterations occur in membrane lipids of erythrocytes. To determine whether similar changes take place in membranes of nucleated cells, the lipid content of plasma and of erythrocyte, liver and kidney membranes was measured in rats with acute (3-day) galactosamine-induced hepatitis or chronic (3-week) biliary obstruction. In both models of liver injury the cholesterol:phospholipid ratio in plasma and in erythrocytes was significantly increased (P less than 0.001). Although this ratio was also elevated in liver and kidney microsomes, only in liver microsomes of obstructed rats was the increase significant (P less than 0.001). However, the cholesterol:phospholipid ratio of kidney brush-border membranes, was significantly higher in bile-duct-ligated rats; presumably, compensating mechanisms limit cholesterol accumulation in intracellular membranes. Kidney brush-border membranes from obstructed rats were deficient in arachidonate as were plasma and erythrocytes. However, arachidonate levels were unchanged in kidney microsomes; renal delta 6-desaturase, the rate-limiting enzyme in the conversion of linoleic acid to arachidonic acid, was increased by 50% (P less than 0.001) and may have counteracted a reduced supply of exogenous lipoprotein arachidonate. We conclude that in experimental liver disease lipoprotein-induced lipid abnormalities can occur in renal membranes, although compensatory mechanisms may operate; the alterations seen, cholesterol accumulation and arachidonate depletion, would be expected to interfere with sodium transport and prostaglandin production, respectively. Our findings support the hypothesis that lipid abnormalities in kidney membranes contribute to the renal dysfunction which is a frequent complication of human liver disease.