BACKGROUND Damaged and/or dysfunctional microvascular endothelium has been implicated in the pathogenesis of ischemic acute renal failure (ARF). Rapidly occurring changes in the endothelial F-actin cytoskeleton as observed in vitro might be responsible, but have been proven difficult to measure accurately in situ. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine several methods of digital image analysis in order to quantify the alterations of endothelial F-actin after renal ischemia and reperfusion (I/R), and to relate these to deterioration of renal function. METHODS Frozen sections of Sham and I/R rat kidneys were fixed in 4% formaldehyde and stained with rhodamine-phalloïdin. Microvascular structures were captured using a 3i Marianastrade mark digital imaging fluorescence microscope workstation. Images were analyzed using 3i SlideBooktrade mark software, employing several masking techniques and line-scans. RESULTS Digital image analysis demonstrated a decrease in the mean intensity of rhodamine-phalloïdin fluorescence after I/R from 1030 +/- 187 to 735 +/- 121 a.u. (arbitrary units, mean +/- SD, n = 7). The number of F-actin fragments per pixel increased from (15.8 +/- 4.9) x 10(-5) to (20.7 +/- 3.5) x 10(-5) (n = 7), indicating cytoskeletal fragmentation. In addition, line-scan analysis demonstrated a disturbed spatial orientation of the F-actin cytoskeleton after I/R. Finally, the loss of F-actin correlated with a rise in plasma creatinine. CONCLUSIONS The methods of digital image analysis described in the present study demonstrate that renal I/R induces profound changes in the F-actin cytoskeletal structure of microvascular endothelial cells, implicating an injured and dysfunctional microvascular endothelium, which may contribute to acute renal failure (ARF).