BACKGROUND: Relaxin (RLX) is a peptide hormone that stimulates the breakdown of collagen in preparation for parturition and when administered to various models of induced fibrosis. However, its significance in the aging kidney is yet to be established. In this study, we compared structural and functional changes in the kidney of aging relaxin-1 (RLX-/-) deficient mice and normal (RLX+/+) mice. METHODS: The kidney cortex and medulla of male and female RLX+/+ and RLX-/- mice at various ages were analyzed for collagen content, concentration, and types. Histologic analysis, reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) of relaxin and relaxin receptor mRNA expression, receptor autoradiography, glomerular isolation/analysis, and serum/urine analysis were also employed. Relaxin treatment of RLX-/- mice was used to confirm the antifibrotic effects of the peptide. RESULTS: We demonstrate an age-related progression of renal fibrosis in male, but not female, RLX-/- mice with significantly (P < 0.05) increased tissue dry weight, collagen (type I) content and concentration. The increased collagen expression in the kidney was associated with increased glomerular matrix and to a lesser extent, interstitial fibrosis in RLX-/- mice, which also had significantly increased serum creatinine (P < 0.05) and urinary protein (P < 0.05). Treatment of RLX-/- mice with relaxin in established stages of renal fibrosis resulted in the reversal of collagen deposition. CONCLUSION: This study supports the concept that relaxin may provide a means to regulate excessive collagen deposition during kidney development and in diseased states characterized by renal fibrosis.