Arginine has vasodilatory effects, via its conversion by NO synthase into NO, and immunomodulatory actions which play important roles in sepsis. Protein breakdown affects arginine availability and the release of asymmetric dimethylarginine, an inhibitor of NO synthase, may therefore affect NO synthesis in patients with sepsis. The objective of the present study was to investigate whole-body in vivo arginine and citrulline metabolism and NO synthesis rates, and their relationship to protein breakdown in patients with sepsis or septic shock and in healthy volunteers. Endogenous leucine flux, an index of whole-body protein breakdown rate, was measured in 13 critically ill patients with sepsis or septic shock and seven healthy controls using an intravenous infusion of [1-13C]leucine. Arginine flux, citrulline flux and the rate of conversion of arginine into citrulline (an index of NO synthesis) were measured with intravenous infusions of [15N2]guanidino-arginine and [5,5-2H2]citrulline. Plasma concentrations of nitrite plus nitrate, arginine, citrulline and asymmetric dimethylarginine were measured. Compared with controls, patients had a higher leucine flux and higher NO metabolites, but arginine flux, plasma asymmetric dimethylarginine concentration and the rate of NO synthesis were not different. Citrulline flux and plasma arginine and citrulline were lower in patients than in controls. Arginine production was positively correlated with the protein breakdown rate. Whole-body arginine production and NO synthesis were similar in patients with sepsis and septic shock and healthy controls. Despite increased proteolysis in sepsis, there is a decreased arginine plasma concentration, suggesting inadequate de novo synthesis secondary to decreased citrulline production.