Upon exposure to a transient ischemia, the distal tubule of the kidney often escapes the severe damage which afflicts the proximal tubule. To ascertain whether this feature of the distal tubule is attributable to its intrinsic cellular properties, we focused on two pairs of unique tubule segments; distal versus proximal convoluted tubules in the superficial cortex and distal versus proximal straight tubules in the outer stripe of the outer medulla. These tubules were chosen because, firstly, they can be identified by morphology and immunostaining, and secondly, each pair has the same anatomical relationship to the circulation. Detailed morphometric analyses were performed six hours following unilateral transient ischemia in adult rats to semiquantitate the local tissue damage in these specific nephron segments. The architecture of the distal convoluted and straight tubules was remarkably well preserved, contrasting to the moderate to extensive necrotic changes seen in the proximal tubules. In search of the potential intrinsic cellular mechanism that underlies the observed difference, we examined the segmental distribution along the nephron of manganese superoxide dismutase gene transcripts by in situ hybridization. This antioxidant enzyme gene was expressed primarily in the distal tubules with contrastingly low levels of expression in the proximal tubules. Moreover, following ischemia-reperfusion, this distal tubule-dominant pattern was further accentuated immediately following reperfusion. The study indicates that the marked difference between the proximal and distal tubules in their susceptibility to injury in vivo is attributable to their intrinsic cellular properties, which include the local level of antioxidants.