Decreased muscle mass in patients with chronic renal failure (CRF) can be caused by mechanisms that activate the ubiquitin-proteasome proteolytic system. This system accelerates the degradation of muscle protein. Concurrent with muscle protein breakdown, there is an increase in transcription of genes encoding components of this pathway, including ubiquitin and subunits of the proteasome. Potential activating signals include metabolic acidosis which stimulates proteolysis in CRF patients and in muscle of rats with CRF by a mechanism involving glucocorticoids. In CRF patients, there is insulin resistance and high circulating levels of tumor necrosis factor and other cytokines. As the ubiquitin-proteasome proteolytic system is activated in acute diabetes and in catabolic conditions associated with high levels of circulating cytokines, these factors could also activate this pathway. Consequently, we examined whether the transcription factor activated by certain cytokines, NF-kappaB, is involved in the transcriptional regulation of subunits of the 26S proteasome complex. The results suggest that cytokines may be involved in the regulation of muscle protein degradation in uremia.