The cause of the relentless progression of chronic renal failure of diverse origins remains unknown and is likely to be multifactorial. Numerous studies have now demonstrated a correlation between the degree of proteinuria and the rate progression of renal failure, which has led to the hypothesis that proteinuria may be an independent mediator of progression rather than simply being a marker of glomerular dysfunction. This article reviews the evidence underlying this hypothesis and the mechanisms by which particular proteins may cause renal pathology. The abnormal filtration of proteins across the glomerular basement membrane will bring them into contact with the mesangium and with the tubular cells. There is evidence to support a role of lipoproteins on mesangial cell function, which ultimately could contribute to glomerular sclerosis. The proximal tubular cells reabsorb proteins from the tubular fluid, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to any adverse effects proteins may have. It has been postulated that the sheer amount of protein to be metabolized by these cells may overwhelm the lysosomes and result in leakage of cytotoxic enzymes into the cells. In addition, the increased metabolism of proteins may result in production of ammonia, which can mediate inflammation through activation of complement. Specific proteins that have been shown to be cytotoxic are transferrin/iron, low-density lipoprotein, and complement components, all of which appear in the urine in proteinuric states. Other specific proteins have been shown to stimulate production of cytokines, chemoattractants, and matrix proteins by tubular cells and thus may stimulate interstitial inflammation and scarring. The mechanisms by which the presence of proteins in the tubular fluid alters tubular cell biology is yet to be determined.