To study the role of erythropoietin (Epo) in the pathogenesis of anemia in acute renal failure (ARF), organ Epo mRNA was measured by RNase protection assay in rats with ARF induced by a one hour-occlusion of the left renal artery. Hematocrit was significantly decreased two hours, 24 hours and one week after renal artery occlusion. A significant reduction in serum haptoglobin at two hours and an increase in serum LDH at 24 hours indicated that hemolysis was the likely cause of the initial fall in hematocrit. However, despite the reduced hematocrit, serum Epo concentrations were not significantly different from controls, suggesting that the anemia is maintained because of lack of an appropriate Epo response. Right renal Epo mRNA levels were not significantly different in all groups, but Epo mRNA levels in post-ischemic kidneys were 50 to 67% lower than in contralateral kidneys. However, Epo mRNA in the post-ischemic kidney was increased sixfold by acute hemorrhage, a rise comparable to the ninefold increase observed in contralateral kidneys. In ARF rats exposed to 7.5% O2 for four hours, right kidney Epo mRNA increased 200-fold over normoxic levels, to a value similar to sham-operated hypoxic controls. Epo mRNA in the post-ischemic kidney also increased 200-fold, to 50% of the level in the contralateral kidney. Hepatic Epo mRNA levels were elevated to comparable levels in both groups. In this ARF model, mild anemia is associated with relative Epo deficiency. In the post-ischemic kidney, a substantial capacity for Epo production is retained but the sensitivity of the Epo response to blood oxygen availability is significantly reduced.