Starvation increased pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) kinase activity in extracts of freshly excised rat soleus 2.2-fold (from 0.6 min-1 in fed rats to 1.31 min-1 in 48-h-starved rats). In fed rats, activities were unchanged following 24 h of culture in medium 199, but increased 2.1-fold on 24 h of culture with 50 microM dibutyryl cAMP plus 1 mM n-octanoate and 1.6-1.7-fold with either agent alone. Approx. 70% of the increase in PDH kinase induced by starvation was lost following 24 h of culture in medium 199; the loss was prevented by 50 microM dibutyryl cAMP plus 1 mM n-octanoate. cAMP concentrations in fresh soleus muscle were 1 nmol/g (fed rats) and 1.6 nmol/g (starved rats). After 20-60 min of culture the fed-starved difference disappeared and [cAMP] fell to 0.4 nmol/g. Calcitonin-gene-related peptide (CGRP) increased cAMP 3-fold; the increase was maintained throughout 24 h of culture, but was readily reversed at 30 min or 24 h of culture by 60-min incubation with CGRP-free medium. Starvation of the rat (48 h) had no effect on the sensitivity of soleus towards the [cAMP]-increasing effect of CGRP. It is concluded that culture may reverse effects of starvation on PDH kinase activity by lowering cAMP and by removal from the in vivo effects of circulating free fatty acids; and that starvation and CGRP had no detectable long-term effects on the cAMP system in soleus muscle.