The use of reliable biomarkers is becoming increasingly important for the improved management of patients with acute and chronic kidney diseases. Recent developments have identified a number of novel biomarkers in serum or urine that can determine the potential risk of kidney damage, distinguish different types of renal injury, predict the progression of disease and have the potential to assess the efficacy of therapeutic intervention. Some of these biomarkers can be used independently while others are more beneficial when used in combination with knowledge of other clinical risk factors. Advances in gene expression analysis, chromatography, mass spectrometry and the development of sensitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays have facilitated accurate quantification of many biomarkers. This review primarily focuses on describing new and established biomarkers, which identify and measure the various pathophysiological processes that promote kidney disease. It provides an overview of some of the different classes of renal biomarkers that can be assessed in serum/plasma and urine, including markers of renal function, oxidative stress, structural and cellular injury, immune responses and fibrosis. However, it does not explore the current status of these biomarkers in terms of their clinical validation.