The evaluation and management of acute renal failure in the ICU patient remains a formidable task because of the complexity of this condition. Clinical and physiologic assessment and complementing laboratory and imaging tests are currently insufficient to differ between true renal parenchymal damage (acute tubular necrosis; it is important to realize that this term does not necessarily imply widespread injury, because whole organ dysfunction in humans has often been associated with very limited parenchymal cellular necrosis) and prerenal azotemia (decreased renal blood flow with altered glomerular hemodynamics and subsequently diminished glomerular filtration, without significant epithelial cell injury). Moreover, tubular damage and altered glomerular hemodynamics may coexist or lead to each other, and their relative contribution to the evolving renal dysfunction has not been unequivocally established. The limited data regarding the renal pathology of such patients and the scant information about human morphologic and functional correlates further undermine our knowledge about diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to these patients. Advanced techniques are critically needed to establish noninvasively the dynamic status of renal parenchymal microcirculation and the distribution of intrarenal oxygenation and to identify evolving cellular energy depletion and tubular cell damage. A few technologies are potentially promising, such as blood oxygen level dependent magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, and kidney injury molecule-1 detection in patients' urine. Because of the difficulties in analyzing the pathophysiology in humans, clinicians continue to rely largely on animal models to guide understanding and rationale for the identification of therapeutic targets. Data from such animal studies are complemented by studies in isolated perfused kidneys, isolated tubules, and tubular epithelial cell cultures. In this report, we summarize some concepts of acute tubular necrosis that have evolved as a result of these studies, evaluate available animal models, and underscore controversies regarding experimental acute tubular necrosis.