Background: Growth-differentiation factor-15 (GDF-15) is an emerging humoral marker for risk stratification in cardiovascular disease. Cardiac-surgery-associated acute kidney injury (CSA-AKI), an important complication in patients undergoing cardiac surgery, is associated with poor prognosis. The present secondary analysis of an observational cohort study aimed to determine the role of GDF-15 in predicting CSA-AKI compared with the Cleveland-Clinic Acute Renal Failure (CC-ARF) score and a logistic regression model including variables associated with renal dysfunction. Methods: Preoperative plasma GDF-15 was determined in 1176 consecutive patients undergoing elective cardiac surgery. Patients with chronic kidney disease stage 5 were excluded. AKI was defined according to Kidney-Disease-Improving-Global-Outcomes (KDIGO) - creatinine criteria. The following variables were screened for association with development of postoperative AKI: age, gender, additive Euroscore, serum creatinine, duration of cardiopulmonary bypass, duration of surgery, type of surgery, total circulatory arrest, preoperative hemoglobin, preoperative oxygen-supplemented cerebral oxygen saturation, diabetes mellitus, hemofiltration during ECC, plasma GDF-15, high sensitivity troponin T (hsTNT), and N-terminal prohormone of B-type natriuretic peptide (NTproBNP). Results: There were 258 patients (21.9 %) with AKI (AKI stage 1 (AKI-1), n = 175 (14.9 %); AKI-2, n = 6 (0.5 %); AKI-3, n = 77 (6.5 %)). The incidence of AKI-1 and AKI-3 increased significantly from the lowest to the highest tertiles of GDF-15. In logistic regression, preoperative GDF-15, additive Euroscore, age, plasma creatinine, diabetes mellitus, and duration of cardiopulmonary bypass were independently associated with AKI. Inclusion of GDF-15 in a logistic regression model comprising these variables significantly increased the area under the curve (AUC 0.738 without and 0.750 with GDF-15 included) and the net reclassification ability to predict AKI. Comparably, in receiver operating characteristic analysis the predictive capacity of the CC-ARF score (AUC 0.628) was improved by adding GDF-15 (AUC 0.684) but this score also had lower predictability than the logistic regression model. In random forest analyses the predictive capacity of GDF-15 was especially pronounced in patients with normal plasma creatinine. Conclusion: This suggests that preoperative plasma GDF-15 independently predicts postoperative AKI in patients undergoing elective cardiac surgery and is particularly helpful for risk stratification in patients with normal creatinine. Trial registration:NCT01166360on July 20, 2010.