Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a dimeric glycoprotein that exerts a proliferative effect specifically on endothelial cells. VEGF can increase vascular permeability and collagenase activity, is chemotactic for monocytes, and may dilate blood vessels. It can be induced by phorbol ester and cAMP in both mesenchymal and epithelial cells. In vitro cell culture experiments suggest that VEGF is upregulated by oxygen deprivation. In this study we tested whether in vivo acute and/or chronic reduction of renal blood flow by vascular obstruction would result in increased expression of VEGF mRNA and protein. Three normal kidneys, five human kidneys with narrowing of preglomerular vessels by vascular rejection or by vasculitis, and eight kidneys with nephrosclerosis and/or diabetic nephropathy were examined. In situ hybridization with 35S-labelled riboprobes showed a pronounced expression of VEGF mRNA in acutely hypoxic proximal and distal tubules of both the cortex and medulla; VEGF protein was demonstrated in the epithelia of these tubules by immunohistochemistry. In kidneys with chronically reduced blood flow, the majority of atrophic tubules were negative for VEGF mRNA and protein, although interstitial cells expressed VEGF mRNA. In arcuate arteries showing intimal and adventitial fibrosis, some medial smooth muscle cells were positive for VEGF mRNA. In glomeruli with segmental sclerosis, viable podocytes showed a prominent signal for VEGF mRNA. Mesangial cells did not express VEGF in the cases studied. It is possible that hypoxia itself led to the upregulation of VEGF in tubular epithelia and vascular smooth muscle cells. The vasodilatory and permeability-promoting effects of the endothelial growth factor produced by damaged tubular epithelia may constitute a mechanism to alleviate a decrease in blood flow and substrate availability and to re-establish vascular integrity.