The distribution of heat shock proteins (HSP) HSP60, HSP73, HSP72 and HSP25 in the isoosmotic cortex and the hyperosmotic medulla of the rat kidney was investigated using Western blot analysis and immunohistochemistry. HSP73 was homogeneously distributed throughout the whole kidney. The level of HSP60 was high in the renal cortex and low in the medulla. HSP25 and HSP72 were present in large amounts in the medulla. Only low levels of HSP25 and almost undetectable amounts of HSP72 were found in the cortex. HSP25 exists in one nonphosphorylated and several phosphorylated isoforms. Western blot analysis preceded by isoelectric focussing showed that HSP25 predominates in its nonphosphorylated form in the outer medulla but in its phosphorylated form in cortex and inner medulla. Although this intrarenal distribution pattern was not changed during prolonged anaesthesia (thiobutabarbital sodium), a shift from the nonphosphorylated to the phosphorylated isoforms of HSP25 occurred in the medulla. The characteristic intrarenal distribution of the constitutively expressed HSPs (HSP73, HSP60, HSP25) may reflect different states of metabolic activity in the isoosmotic (cortex) and hyperosmotic (medulla) zones of the kidney. The high content of inducible HSP72 in the medulla most likely is a consequence of the osmotic stress imposed upon the cells by the high urea and salt concentrations in the hyperosmotic medullary environment.