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We tested the role of different intracellular proteolytic pathways in sepsis-induced muscle proteolysis. Sepsis was induced in rats by cecal ligation and puncture; controls were sham operated. Total and myofibrillar proteolysis was determined in incubated extensor digitorum longus muscles as release of tyrosine and 3-methylhistidine, respectively. Lysosomal proteolysis was assessed by using the lysosomotropic agents NH4Cl, chloroquine, leupeptin, and methylamine. Ca(2+)-dependent proteolysis was determined in the absence or presence of Ca2+ or by blocking the Ca(2+)-dependent proteases calpain I and II. Energy-dependent proteolysis was determined in muscles depleted of ATP by 2-deoxyglucose and 2.4-dinitrophenol. Muscle ubiquitin mRNA and the concentrations of free and conjugated ubiquitin were determined by Northern and Western blots, respectively, to assess the role of the ATP-ubiquitin-dependent proteolytic pathway. Total and myofibrillar protein breakdown was increased during sepsis by 50 and 440%, respectively. Lysosomal and Ca(2+)-dependent proteolysis was similar in control and septic rats. In contrast, energy-dependent total and myofibrillar protein breakdown was increased by 172% and more than fourfold, respectively, in septic muscle. Ubiquitin mRNA was increased severalfold in septic muscle. The results suggest that the increase in muscle proteolysis during sepsis is due to an increase in nonlysosomal energy-dependent protein breakdown, which may involve the ubiquitin system.