The architecture and compartmentalization of the kidney has stimulated the development of an array of microtechniques to study the functional differences between the distinct nephron segments. With the vast amounts of genomic sequence data now available, the groundwork has been laid for a comprehensive characterization of the molecular pathways defining the differences in nephron function. With the development of sensitive gene expression techniques the tools for a comprehensive molecular analysis of specific renal microenvironments have been provided: Quantitative RT-PCR technologies now allow the analysis of specific mRNAs from as little as single microdissected renal cells. A more global view of gene expression regulation is a logical development from the application of large scale profiling techniques. In this review, we will discuss the power and pitfalls of these approaches, including their potential for the functional characterization of nephron heterogeneity and diagnostic application in renal disease.