The interaction between the cysteine proteases calpain and caspases during renal ischemia-reperfusion (I/R) was investigated. An increase in the activity of calpain, as determined by 1) the appearance of calpain-mediated spectrin breakdown products and 2) the conversion of procalpain to active calpain, was demonstrated. Because intracellular calpain activity is regulated by calpastatin, the effect of I/R on calpastatin was determined. On immunoblot of renal cortex, there was a 50-100% decrease of a low molecular weight (LMW) form of calpastatin (41 kDa) after I/R. Calpastatin activity was also significantly decreased after I/R compared with sham-operated rats, indicating that the decreased protein expression had functional significance. In rats treated with the caspase inhibitor, z-Asp-2,6-dichlorobenzoyloxymethylketone (Z-D-DCB), the decrease in both calpastatin activity and protein expression was normalized, suggesting that caspases may be proteolyzing calpastatin. Caspase 3 activity increased significantly after I/R and was attenuated in ischemic kidneys from rats treated with the caspase inhibitor. In summary, during renal I/R injury, there is 1) calpain activation associated with downregulation of calpastatin protein and decreased calpastatin activity and 2) activation of caspase 3. In addition, in vivo caspase inhibition reverses the decrease in calpastatin activity. In conclusion, proteolysis of calpastatin by caspase 3 may regulate calpain activity during I/R injury. Although the protective effect of cysteine protease inhibition against hypoxic necrosis of proximal tubules has previously been demonstrated, the functional significance in ischemic acute renal failure in vivo merits further study.