Abnormalities in lipid metabolism appear to play a pathogenic role in progressive renal disease. To elucidate the cellular and molecular basis of renal interstitial fibrosis in uninephrectomized rats with diet-induced hypercholesterolemia, we fed experimental rats with standard rat chow supplemented with 4% cholesterol and 1% cholic acid. Control rats were fed an isocaloric diet. Groups of 7 control and 7 experimental rats were killed after 4, 8, and 12 weeks. Hypercholesterolemic rats developed albuminuria; serum creatinine was elevated at 12 weeks. By 12 weeks numerous oil red O-positive cells were present throughout the interstitium and to a lesser extent in tubules. Total renal lipid-peroxidation products were significantly increased (172 +/- 15, 198 +/- 28, and 197 +/- 13 mmol malondialdehyde/kidney at 4, 8, and 12 weeks vs. 123 +/- 17, 144 +/- 6, and 125 +/- 10 mmol in controls). Immunostaining revealed oxidatively modified lipoproteins within tubular and interstitial cells. The interstitial disease was characterized by an interstitial infiltrate of monocytes. Significant increases were detected in renal cortical mRNA levels for monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 (MCP-1), osteopontin, and vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1), associated with changes in the pattern of immunostaining for each encoded proteins. Total kidney collagen was significantly increased at 12 weeks (9.8 +/- 0.9 mg/kidney vs. 7.8 +/- 0.9 mg in controls). At 12 weeks there was a significant increase in interstitial immunostaining for collagen I, collagen III, collagen IV, fibronectin and tenascin. A significant threefold increase in renal cortical mRNA levels for transforming growth factor beta-1 (TGF-beta 1) at 4 and 12 weeks was associated with the appearance of TGF-beta 1-positive interstitial cells. Renal matrix protein mRNA levels were measured at 4, 8, and 12 weeks. The only statistically significant elevations were procollagen alpha 1(I) and procollagen alpha 1(III) at weeks 8 and 12. In contrast, renal cortical mRNA levels for the tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases-1 (TIMP-1) were significantly increased at 4, 8 and 12 weeks (1.4 +/- 0.5, 2.7 +/- 0.9 and 2.7 +/- 1.4 arbitrary densitometric units, respectively, vs. 1.0 +/- 0.4, 1.0 +/- 0.5 and 1.0 +/- 0.4 units for controls), and urokinase-type plasminogen activator (muPA) mRNA levels were significantly decreased at 4, 8, and 12 weeks (0.4 +/- 0.1 arbitrary densitometric units for all three experimental groups vs. 1.0 +/- 0.4, 1.0 +/- 0.3, and 1.0 +/- 0.4 units for the control groups). In summary, rats with diet-induced hypercholesterolemia develop renal interstitial fibrosis over several weeks. Following the accumulation of lipids within tubulointerstitial cells, interstitial nephritis develops. The fibrotic phase is characterized by modest changes in matrix protein mRNA levels, up-regulated TIMP-1, and down-regulated muPA levels, suggesting that altered matrix degradation plays a role in the interstitial fibrogenesis in this model.