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Biallelic mutations of the von Hippel–Lindau (VHL) gene are the most common cause of sporadic and inherited renal cell carcinoma (RCC). Loss ofVHLhas been reported to affect cell proliferation by deregulating cell cycle-associated proteins. We report that theVHLgene product (pVHL) inhibits E2F1 expression at both mRNA and protein level in zebrafish and human RCC cells, while loss ofVHLincreases E2F1 expression in patient kidney tumour tissue and RCC cells, resulting in a delay of cell cycle progression. RCCs from von Hippel–Lindau patients with known germlineVHLmutations express significantly more E2F1 compared to sporadic RCCs with either clear-cell (cc) or non-cc histology. Analysis of 138 primary RCCs reveals that E2F1 expression is significantly higher in tumours with a diameter ≤7 cm and with a favourable American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) stage. The expression of E2F1 in RCC significantly correlates with p27 expression, suggesting that increased expression of E2F1 in RCC induces tumour cell senescence via p27. Cox regression analysis shows significant prediction of E2F1 expression for disease-free survival and overall survival, implying that E2F1 expression in kidney tumour is a novel prognostic factor for patients with RCC. Copyright © 2013 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.