In bilateral ureteral obstruction, both aquaporin-2 (AQP2) levels and urinary concentrating capacity are markedly reduced. However, the mechanisms involved in AQP2 downregulation are unknown. In rats with unilateral ureteral obstruction (UUO) the relative role of intrarenal and systemic factors can be evaluated. Semiquantitative immunoblotting revealed a marked decrease in AQP2 in obstructed kidneys to 23 +/- 7% (n = 9) of sham levels. This downregulation persisted 24 h after release of UUO. Furthermore, there was a significant but less extensive downregulation of AQP2 in the nonobstructed kidneys to 75 +/- 7% (n = 9) of sham levels. Consistent with impairment of collecting duct water reabsorption, free water clearance was greatly elevated in the obstructed kidneys (-2 +/- 1 microliter-min-1.kg-1, determined immediately after release) and only moderately elevated in nonobstructed kidneys (-44 +/- 5 microliters.min-1.kg-1) compared with sham-operated controls (-59 +/- 3 microliters.min-1.kg-1). Also AQP2 mRNA levels were reduced in obstructed kidneys. Immunocytochemistry confirmed the marked decrease in AQP2 expression in obstructed kidneys. In nonobstructed kidneys AQP2 was predominantly found in intracellular vesicles, which together with the reduced expression and elevated free water clearance strongly suggests a role of AQP2 in the observed compensatory diuresis from nonobstructed kidneys. The much lower AQP2 protein and mRNA levels in obstructed vs. nonobstructed kidneys are consistent with intrarenal factors playing a major role for downregulation of AQP2.