The initial event in the renal tubular reabsorption of nephrotoxic aminoglycosides involves binding to brush border membranes. This primary event was measured in renal brush border membrane vesicles prepared from rat renal cortex utilizing [3H]gentamicin. In order to gain structure-activity information regarding this interaction the effect of substances having chemical similarities to aminoglycosides (sugars, polyamines and amino acids) on gentamicin binding to brush border membranes was determined. Polyamino acids were found to possess the greatest inhibitory potency. In addition to polymers of cationic amino acids (lysine, ornithine, arginine and histidine), polymers of neutral (asparagine) and acidic (aspartic and glutamic acid) amino acids also exhibited inhibition of the membrane binding of gentamicin. Inasmuch as inhibition of renal membrane binding has the potential to decrease aminoglycoside nephrotoxicity, several polyamino acids that inhibited membrane binding were tested in vivo for potential protective activity vs. gentamicin- and amikacin-induced nephrotoxicity. Polyasparagine90 and polyaspartic acid100 inhibited gentamicin and amikacin nephrotoxicity completely when coadministered to rats with the aminoglycosides. Polylysine20 provided complete and partial inhibition of gentamicin and amikacin nephrotoxicity, respectively. Whereas in vivo distribution studies revealed that cortical levels of [3H]amikacin were elevated slightly by the coadministration of polyaspartic acid, brush border and basolateral membranes contained significantly lower levels of the aminoglycoside (46 and 41% inhibition, respectively). These results question the role of charge per se in the binding of aminoglycosides to renal membranes and further confirm the importance of membrane binding in the pathogenesis of aminoglycoside nephrotoxicity.