Incorporation of radiolabeled precursors into muscle proteins was studied in isolated rat hemidiaphragms. A mixture of three branched-chain amino acids (0.3 mM each) added to media containing glucose stimulated the incorporation of [14C]lysine into proteins. When tested separately, valine was ineffective, isoleucine was inhibitory, but 0.5 mM leucine increased the specific activity of muscle proteins during incubation with [14C]lysine or [14C]acetate in hemidiaphragms from fed or fasted rats incubated with or without insulin. Preincubation with 0.5 mM leucine increased the specific activity of muscle proteins during a subsequent 30- or 60-min incubation with [14C]lysine or [14C]pyruvate without leucine. Preincubation with other amino acids (glutamate, histidine, methionine, phenylalanine, or tryptophan) did not exert this effect. When hemidiaphragms were incubated with a mixture of amino acids at concentrations found in rat serum and a [14C]lysine tracer, the specific activity of muscle proteins increased when leucine in the medium was raised from 0.1 to 0.5 mM. Experiments with actinomycin D and cycloheximide suggested that neither RNA synthesis nor protein synthesis are required for the initiation of the leucine effect. Leucine was not effective when added after 1 h preincubation without leucine. The concentration of lysine in the tissue water of diaphragms decreased during incubation with 0.5 mM leucine in the presence or absence of cycloheximide, suggesting that leucine inhibited protein degradation. During incubation with [3h]tyrosine (0.35 mM) the addition of 0.5 mM leucine increased the specific activity of muscle proteins, while the specific activity of intracellular tyrosine remained constant and its concentration decreased, suggesting that leucine also promoted protein synthesis. The concentration of leucine in muscle cells or a compartment thereof may play a role in regulating the turnover of muscle proteins and influence the transition to negative nitrogen balance during fasting, uncontrolled diabetes, and the posttraumatic state. Leucine may play a pivotal role in the protein-sparing effect of amino aicds.