The ubiquitin-proteasome proteolytic system is stimulated in conditions causing muscle atrophy. Signals initiating this response in these conditions are unknown, although glucocorticoids are required but insufficient to stimulate muscle proteolysis in starvation, acidosis, and sepsis. To identify signals that activate this system, we studied acutely diabetic rats that had metabolic acidosis and increased corticosterone production. Protein degradation was increased 52% (P < 0.05), and mRNA levels encoding ubiquitin-proteasome system components, including the ubiquitin-conjugating enzyme E214k, were higher (transcription of the ubiquitin and proteasome subunit C3 genes in muscle was increased by nuclear run-off assay). In diabetic rats, prevention of acidemia by oral NaHCO3 did not eliminate muscle proteolysis. Adrenalectomy blocked accelerated proteolysis and the rise in pathway mRNAs; both responses were restored by administration of a physiological dose of glucocorticoids to adrenalectomized, diabetic rats. Finally, treating diabetic rats with insulin for >/=24 h reversed muscle proteolysis and returned pathway mRNAs to control levels. Thus acidification is not necessary for these responses, but glucocorticoids and a low insulin level in tandem activate the ubiquitin-proteasome proteolytic system.