Twenty-two patients undergoing elective abdominal surgery were given total parenteral nutrition (TPN) after the operation. The TPN contained either a conventional amino acid solution supplemented with glutamine or a conventional amino acid solution without supplementation. To study amino acid and protein metabolism, muscle biopsy specimens were taken before surgery and on the third postoperative day. The postoperative decrease in the intracellular concentration of free glutamine was less pronounced in the glutamine group (21.8 +/- 5.5%) than in the control group (38.7 +/- 5.1%; p less than 0.05). The protein synthesis was reflected in the concentration and size distribution of ribosomes. No significant changes in these parameters were seen in the glutamine group after the operation. In the control group, the total concentration of ribosomes fell by 27.2 +/- 8.5% (p less than 0.05), and the relative proportion of polyribosomes fell by 10.6 +/- 2.9% (p less than 0.01). Although there were significant changes in the control group, no significant differences in the changes of these parameters between the two groups were detected. The cumulative nitrogen loss was significantly less in the glutamine group as compared to the control group during the period studied--2.3 +/- 1.4 g versus 8.5 +/- 1.5 g, respectively (p less than 0.01). Administration of glutamine to catabolic patients is advocated.