In three different models of acute renal failure (ischemia, ureteral obstruction, and cisplatin administration), the p21WAF1/CIP1/SDI1 gene, the protein product of which is associated with cell-cycle interruption, terminal differentiation, and cellular senescence, was activated in murine kidney cells. This transcription was localized in kidney only to cells of thick ascending limbs and distal convoluted tubules. Although the tumor suppressor protein, p53, can trans-activate the p21 gene in some cells, increased levels of nuclear p53 protein could be demonstrated only in the cisplatin model of acute renal failure. High levels of p21 mRNA were induced in kidney of p53 "null" mice, demonstrating that p21 gene activation was through a p53-independent pathway. We also present evidence that, in the cisplatin model, both p53-independent and p53-dependent induction of p21 mRNA occur simultaneously. We conclude that p21 gene activation is a general response to renal injury and could be a key determinant of cell fate in the cell in which it is expressed.