To assess the renal functional adaptation to reduced excretory capacity, we studied whole kidney and single nephron function in anesthetized volume-replete rabbits after unilateral (left kidney) nephrectomy (UNX), ureteral obstruction (UO), or ureteroperitoneostomy (UP). At 24 h, despite the absence of measurable hypertrophy of the contralateral (right) kidney, these procedures significantly increased p-aminohippurate clearance (45-54%) and inulin clearance (CIN) (64-110%) compared with sham-operated control animals. In each group, whole kidney sodium reabsorption increased in proportion to the rise in CIN. To determine whether the intrinsic transport capacity of proximal tubule segments is altered by these maneuvers, we measured fluid volume reabsorption rate (Jv) in isolated superficial proximal straight tubule (PST) segments perfused in vitro, comparing each control tubule (obtained by biopsy of the left kidney immediately before an experimental maneuver) with a corresponding tubule segment obtained 24 h or 7 d later from the contralateral kidney. Control tubule Jv in sham-24 h animals averaged 0.48 +/- 0.04 nl/(min X mm). Jv did not change significantly at 24 h or 7 d after sham maneuvers but increased significantly at 24 h after UNX [delta Jv = 0.13 +/- 0.03 nl/(min X mm)], UO [delta Jv = 0.10 +/- 0.04 nl/(min X mm)], and UP [delta Jv = 0.13 +/- 0.04 nl/(min X mm)]. Jv remained increased by similar amounts at 7 d after UNX and UO. To evaluate whether an increase in glomerular filtration rate (GFR) might be the stimulus to this augmentation in Jv values, methylprednisolone (MP) (15 mg/kg per d) was administered daily to sham-operated animals, a maneuver which induced a 73% rise in CIN by day 5. This procedure also produced a significant increase in Jv in PST at 5 d [delta Jv = 0.16 +/- 0.05 nl/(min X mm)]. The increase in Jv evident in each group at 5 or 7 d was paralleled by an equivalent change in tubule cell volume and apparent tubule luminal surface area in UNX-7d and MP-5d; no such increments in these indices, or in apparent tubule serosal surface area were evident at 24 h in any group. Thus, a 50% reduction in renal excretory function in the rabbit provokes adjustments in renal plasma flow rate and GFR in the contralateral kidney, which are evident by 24 h. The concurrent change in Jv in PST is closely related to CIN or some associated hemodynamic process, but does not appear to require an increase in tubule cell volume or apparent surface area. The ability to detect these small in vivo changes in Jv may derive from the enhanced sensitivity of paired-kidney experiments using tubule segments obtained by renal biopsy.