The cyclin kinase inhibitor p21 is acutely upregulated during acute kidney injury (AKI) and exerts cytoprotective effects. A proposed mechanism is oxidant stress-induced activation of p53, the dominant p21 transcription factor. Glycerol-induced rhabdomyolysis induces profound renal oxidant stress. Hence, we studied this AKI model to determine whether p53 activation corresponds with p21 gene induction and/or whether alternative mechanism(s) might be involved. CD-1 mice were subjected to glycerol-induced AKI. After 4 or 18 h, plasma, urinary, and renal cortical p21 protein and mRNA levels were assessed. Renal p53 activation was gauged by measurement of both total and activated (Ser15-phosphorylated) p53 and p53 mRNA levels. Glycerol evoked acute, progressive increases in renal cortical p21 mRNA and protein levels. Corresponding plasma (~25-fold) and urinary (~75-fold) p21 elevations were also observed. Renal cortical ratio of total to phosphorylated (Ser15) p53 rose three- to fourfold. However, the p53 inhibitor pifithrin-α failed to block glycerol-induced p21 gene induction, suggesting that an alternative p21 activator might also be at play. To this end, it was established that glycerol-induced AKI 1) dramatically increased plasma (~5-fold) and urinary (~75-fold) cortisol levels, 2) the glucocorticoid receptor antagonist mifepristone blocked glycerol-induced p21 mRNA and protein accumulation, and 3) dexamethasone or cortisol injections markedly increased p21 protein and mRNA in both normal and glycerol-treated mice, although no discernible p53 protein or mRNA increases were observed. We conclude that AKI-induced "systemic stress" markedly increases plasma and urinary cortisol, which can then activate renal p21 gene expression, at least in part, via a glucocorticoid receptor-dependent signaling pathway. Discernible renal cortical p53 increases are not required for this dexamethasone-mediated p21 response.