Autoimmune tubulointerstitial nephritis (TIN) was induced in Lewis (LEW) rats by immunization with homologous Brown-Norway (BN) rat renal basement membrane (RBM), complete Freund's adjuvant and Bordetella pertussis vaccine. The BN strain has a tubular basement membrane (TBM) antigen (Ag+) detectable by immunofluorescence which is lacking in unmodified LEW rat TBM. Development of TIN in LEW rats correlated with TBM Ag+ immunogens from homologous and heterologous RBM preparations. By day 14 after immunization TIN developed characterized by elevated serum creatinine levels and by tubular destruction with focal, circumscribed lesions containing epithelioid cells, giant cells and mononuclear cell infiltrates. Approximately 60% of the mononuclear cells bore T cell antigens with most cells expressing Ia markers. Immunofluorescence and elution studies revealed no selective IgG fixation to TBM at day 14 despite high titers of circulating alloantibody reactive with the immunizing TBM. Intravenous transfer of LNC and/or splenic cells (3.5 to 7 X 10(8)) to naive LEW rats resulted in less severe but histologically identical TIN in seven days with T cell subpopulations similar to those seen in the active model. This model strongly suggests an initiating role for cell-mediated immunity in TIN in the rat and may provide a parallel to human TIN.