Acute kidney injury remains a serious clinical problem for intensive care unit patients, and its incidence is rising. The detection and diagnosis of acute kidney injury in the intensive care unit currently require use of conventional markers of kidney function, specifically, serum creatinine and urea levels and, less frequently, other urinary tests. These conventional markers are familiar to clinicians and have long been used at the bedside. However, these markers are clearly not ideal, each has limitations, and none reflect real-time changes in glomerular filtration rate or a genuine acute injurious process to the kidney. More importantly, these conventional markers can contribute to delays in recognition of acute kidney injury and, hence, delays to appropriate supportive and therapeutic interventions. The early detection and diagnosis of acute kidney injury should be a clinical priority. A diagnostic test or panel of tests that are capable of evaluating aspects both of kidney function and acute injury are desperately needed in critical care nephrology. Cystatin C has been shown superior to conventional markers and may assume a greater role in intensive care unit patients for detecting both early changes in glomerular filtration rate and evidence of acute injury. Other newly characterized markers of kidney function or acute injury have the potential to revolutionized the field of critical care nephrology and greatly improve the supportive and therapeutic management of intensive care unit patients with acute kidney injury.