Following acute tubular necrosis (ATN), cytoresistance to further renal injury results. However, the initiating events and the subcellular determinants of this phenomenon have not been defined. Since tubular obstruction is a consequence of ATN, this study evaluated whether it alters tubular susceptibility to hypoxic damage. Extrarenal obstruction (ureteral ligation in rats) was used for this purpose to dissociate obstructive effects from those of ATN. Twenty-four hours following ureteral ligation or sham surgery, cortical proximal tubular segments (PTS) were isolated and subjected to hypoxic (15 or 30 min)/reoxygenation injury. Since oxidant stress, cell Ca2+ overload, and PLA2 attack are purported mediators of hypoxic/reoxygenation injury, degrees of FeS04, Ca2+ ionophore, and phospholipase A2-induced PTS damage also were assessed. The cell injury (% LDH release) which resulted from each of the above was consistently less in PTS obtained from obstructed kidneys. This cytoresistance: (a) did not require prior uremia to develop (seen with unilateral obstruction); (b) it did not appear to correlate with a tubular proliferative response (assessed by proliferating cell nuclear antigen expression); (c) it was uninfluenced by early tubular repair (unchanged by 24 hrs of obstruction release); and (d) it occurred without increased heat shock protein (HSP-70) or antioxidant enzyme (superoxide dismutase, catalase) expression. Total adenylate pools were higher in obstructed versus control PTS during injury; however, this appeared to be a correlate of the protection, rather than a mediator of it. In contrast, obstructed tubules manifested a primary increase in plasma membrane resistance to PLA2 attack (approximately 3-fold less lysophosphatidylcholine and free fatty acid generation in obstructed vs. control PTS during incubation with exogenous PLA2). In sum, these results indicate that: (1) tubular obstruction protects PTS from injury, suggesting that its development during ATN may initiate cytoresistance; and (2) this cytoresistance appears to be mediated, at least in part, by a direct increase in plasma membrane resistance to PLA2 and potentially other forms (such as, oxidant stress, cytosolic Ca2+ loading) of attack.