We have studied the sequential morphological changes that took place in the kidneys of 8 rats with nephrotoxic serum nephritis (NTN). Rats underwent kidney biopsies at different time intervals (days 7, 15, 30, 90 and 120). The tissues were processed for light microscopy as well as immunohistochemistry for inflammatory cellular infiltrate as well as for the components of the extracellular matrix (ECM) and myofibroblasts (cells expressing alpha-smooth muscle actin, alpha-SMA). Nephrotic rats developed severe proteinuria, impaired renal function as well as progressive renal scarring. However, the natural history of NTN was heterogeneous with some rats recovering (n = 5) and other progressing to end-stage renal failure (n = 3). The heterogeneous nature of the glomerulonephritis has established that those with a good outcome had a stabilisation, with some resolution, of the deposited ECM and of the scarring process. By contrast, rats with a poor outcome had a progressive increase in glomerular as well as interstitial ECM. Cells expressing alpha-SMA (myofibroblasts) were detected in the glomeruli as well as in the interstitium of nephritic rats. Changes in the expression of cells expressing alpha-SMA paralleled those of the components of the ECM in particular fibronectin. alpha-SMA immunostain was the best predictor of progression. Early glomerular alpha-SMA immunostain (days 7 and 30) was a strong predictor of the subsequent development of glomerulosclerosis and renal dysfunction. The predictive value of interstitial alpha-SMA immunostain on days 7 for subsequent tubulo-interstitial scarring and renal insufficiency was also strong and exceeded that of other histological or immunohistochemical parameters of scarring. This study establishes the natural history of experimental renal scarring and identifies a renal cell type, the myofibroblast, as a useful marker of progression. It also suggests a role for myofibroblasts in the progression of glomerulosclerosis and tubulo-interstitial fibrosis.