Dystrophin is a cytoskeletal protein which is thought to play an important role in membrane physiology since its absence (due to gene deficiency) leads to the symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). Some disruption in the regulation of intracellular free Ca2+ levels could lead to DMD-like symptoms. In this study, calpains, which are very active calcium-dependent proteases, were examined for their capacity to hydrolyse dystrophin in vitro. The results show that calpains are able to split dystrophin and produce breakdown products of different sizes (the degree of cleavage being dependent on the incubation time with proteases). The time-course of protease degradation was examined by Western immunoblot using three polyclonal sera which were characterized as being specific to the central (residues 1173-1728) and two distal parts of the molecule ie specific to the N-terminal (residues 43-760) or the C-terminal (residues 3357-3660) extremities of the dystrophin molecule. The cleavage patterns of dystrophin showed an accumulation of some major protease-resistant fragments of high relative molecular mass (250-370 kDa). These observations demonstrate that calpains digest dystrophin very rapidly when the calcium concentration is compatible with their activation. For instance, it is clear that calpains first give rise to large dystrophin products in which the C-terminal region is lacking. These observations suggest that dystrophin antibodies specific to the central domain of the molecule should be used to detect dystrophin for diagnostic purposes and before any conclusion as to the presence or absence of dystrophin can be deduced from results obtained using immunoanalyses of muscle biopsies.