The concept that 'life before birth' or the 'first environment' is important in determining subsequent risk for the development of cardiovascular/metabolic disease is now gaining acceptance. There are substantial data from animal experiments that complement and enhance the epidemiological data from human studies. We argue that any factor which disrupts nephrogenesis, and lowers nephron number, during the period of active nephrogenesis, will induce malapadaptive changes in the future functioning of that kidney and predispose to the onset of adult hypertension. Such factors include exposure of the mother, to a particular low-protein diet, excess synthetic or natural glucocorticoid at certain critical periods, mild vitamin A deficiency, elevated blood glucose, unilateral nephrectomy during the period of nephrogenesis, as well as the deletion of one allele of a gene (GDNF) involved in normal metanephric development. All of these stresses are associated with a reduction (20-40 per cent) in total nephron number in the adult, and the development of hypertension. In some hypertensive models, (rats) there is evidence of alterations in the components of the hippocampal/hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis, whereas in others (sheep) there are alterations in the expression of angiotensinogen (hypothalamus) and angiotensin II receptor type I (AT(1)) in the medulla oblongata. The surprising finding is that the period when the kidney and brain are most vulnerable is very early in development, when both organs are in an extremely primitive state of development.