Iron accumulates within proximal tubular lysosomes in several models of renal disease and may play a role in the progression of proteinuric chronic renal disease by the generation of reactive oxygen species. In this study, tubular iron was examined at an ultrastructural level by energy dispersive x-ray spectrometry in streptozotocin (STZ) and BB diabetic rats, and in humans with diabetic nephropathy, and compared to their respective nondiabetic controls. Substantial amounts of iron accumulated in the secondary lysosomes of proximal tubules in STZ diabetic rats (4.16 +/- 0.47 iron-containing lysosomes/microns 2 x 10(-3) tubular area vs. 0.90 +/- 0.29 in controls, p < 0.001). Proximal tubular iron was related independently with urinary protein and transferrin excretion, suggesting increased cellular uptake of iron from the tubular fluid. Lysosomal iron accumulation was also associated with tubular damage (r = 0.55, p < 0.001). Minimal amounts of tubular iron were observed in BB diabetic and nondiabetic littermates. In humans with diabetic nephropathy, increased proximal tubular lysosomal iron concentration (35.6 +/- 13.0 mg% Fe vs. 9.5 +/- 2.7, p < 0.05) and numbers of iron-containing lysosomes were observed compared to nondiabetic controls, and the latter correlated with elevation of serum creatinine (r = 0.94, p = 0.016). These results suggest that filtered iron enters proximal tubular lysosomes across the brush-border membrane and are consistent with a role for iron in causing the tubular damage of diabetic nephropathy.