FK506 can show efficacy in transplant rejection even after other immunosuppressive drugs have been ineffective. However, the lack of a suitable animal model has hindered the study of FK nephrotoxicity, which has been noted as a common adverse effect in human trials. In this paper, we report a model of chronic FK nephrotoxicity in which renal structure and function are worsened by sodium depletion. Pair-fed male Sprague-Dawley rats were given FK (6 mg/kg p.o.) or vehicle for 21 days on a low-salt or normal diet. There was no significant difference in body weight between FK and vehicle groups. The FK whole-blood trough levels (3-10 ng/ml) in rats are similar to those in FK treated transplant patients. In sodium-depleted rats, FK clearly decreased GFR (0.09 +/- 0.03 ml/min/100 g vs. 0.94 +/- 0.06 ml/min/100 g in the vehicle group, P < 0.01), urinary osmolarity (UOsm, P < 0.01) and plasma magnesium (P < 0.01) and increased plasma creatinine (Pcr, P < 0.01), fractional excretion of magnesium (P < 0.01), urine volume (P < 0.01), plasma renin activity (PRA, P < 0.05), and alanine aminopeptidase (AAP, P < 0.05) as compared with those in the vehicle group. Salt depletion significantly potentiated these functional changes as compared with those in the normal salt group (GFR, UOsm, Pcr, PRA, and AAP of the low salt group vs. those of the normal salt group, P < 0.05 by ANOVA). In the sodium-depleted rats, the main lesion in the rat kidneys was focal collapse and vacuolization in proximal tubules, but there was also significant interstitial fibrosis. In contrast, no injury was observed in the sodium-replete rat kidneys. In conclusion, an experimental model of FK nephrotoxicity in sodium-depleted rats has been developed that is characterized by reduced GFR and structural damage to the proximal tubule accompanied by interstitial fibrosis. Sodium depletion appears to potentiate these changes at blood levels similar to those achieved in patients receiving FK.