Muscle wasting and weakness occur frequently in patients with chronic renal failure. The mechanism(s) by which these abnormalities occur is unclear. We hypothesized that such findings were due to defective muscle protein synthesis. We measured synthetic rates of mixed muscle proteins, myosin heavy chain, and mitochondrial proteins in serial muscle biopsy samples during a continuous infusion of L[1-(13)C]leucine from 12 patients with chronic renal failure and 10 healthy control subjects under identical study conditions. Patients with chronic renal failure have significantly lower synthetic rates of mixed muscle proteins and myosin heavy chain (27 and 37% reductions, respectively, P < 0.05 and P < 0.02). Significant declines in the synthetic rates of muscle mitochondrial protein (27%) (P < 0.05), muscle cytochrome c-oxidase activity (42%) (P < 0.007), and citrate synthase (27%) (P < 0.007) were also observed in patients with chronic renal failure. The synthetic rates of muscle proteins and activity of mitochondrial enzymes were negatively correlated to the severity of renal failure. These results indicate that in chronic renal failure there is a decrease in the synthesis of muscle contractile and mitochondrial proteins and a decrease in muscle mitochondrial oxidative enzymes. Reduced synthetic rate of several muscle proteins is the likely biochemical basis of muscle loss and muscle weakness in people with chronic renal failure.