The tissue distribution of cellular adhesion molecules (CAMs) was studied in specimens from 10 normal human kidneys and in 52 biopsies from kidney allografts with cell-mediated rejection. In addition to the vascular presence of ICAM-1, a common finding in normal kidneys, expression of ICAM-1 on tubular cells was observed in 22 graft biopsies. Compared with normal kidneys, where VCAM-1 was present on Bowman's capsules and few proximal tubular cells, a markedly enhanced expression of VCAM-1 in numerous tubuli (including distal tubular segments) was observed in 51 graft biopsies. In 41 graft specimens VCAM-1 appeared also in variable numbers of peritubular capillaries. Infiltrating leukocytes carrying VCAM-1 were observed in 7 grafts. ELAM-1 could not be found in normal kidneys but was restricted to some peritubular capillaries in 29 grafts. Comparable results were obtained with cultured renal tubular cells when stimulated by TNF-alpha. That the induced appearance of adhesion molecules was in fact related to actual cellular synthesis was demonstrated by Northern blot analysis. Thus, little ICAM-1 specific mRNA of 3.4-kb length could be detected in unstimulated cultured renal tubular cells, but hybridization was markedly increased after stimulation with TNF-alpha. A substantial amount of VCAM-1 specific mRNA of 3.2-kb length was present already in unstimulated renal tubular cells. Likewise, synthesis of VCAM-1 mRNA was enhanced by stimulation with TNF-alpha. TNF-stimulated endothelial cells also showed weak synthesis of VCAM-1 mRNA. The results provide further evidence that constitutive and inducible expression of cell adhesion molecules contributes to the process of allograft rejection.