Objective. To investigate the feasibility of using intravascular ultrasound to characterize normal and diseased renal arteries. Materials and methods. Forty-four renal artery specimens from 21 humans, removed at autopsy, were studied with intravascular ultrasound in vitro. From each vascular specimen, two to four sets of corresponding intravascular ultrasound images and histologic sections were subjected to qualitative analysis. The renal arterial wall was considered normal by intravascular ultrasound when the wall thickness (intima and media) was 0.5 mm or less. On intravascular ultrasound imaging, a distinction was made between bright lesions with or without peripheral shadowing (i.e. calcification). Histological sections were examined and fibromuscular lesions were scored with or without calcifications. Quantitative analysis of a multitude of intravascular ultrasound cross-sections (interval 5 mm) included assessment of the lumen area, vessel area, plaque area and percentage area obstructed. The target site (smallest lumen area) was compared with a reference site (largest lumen area before the first major side branch). Results. Of the 130 corresponding intravascular ultrasound images and histologic sections analysed, 55 were normal and 75 presented a bright lesion on ultrasound; in 31 lesions, peripheral shadowing was involved. The sensitivity of the intravascular ultrasound in detecting calcifications was 87%, and the specificity was 89%. Lumen area reduction at the target site was associated with vessel and plaque area enlargement in eight specimens, with plaque area enlargement in 12 specimens and with a vessel area reduction in 21 specimens.