The effects of potassium deficiency on growth, K content and protein synthesis have been compared in 4-13-week-old rats. When maintained on K-deficient fodder (1 mmol/kg) rats ceased to grow within a few days, and the incorporation of [3H]leucine into skeletal muscle protein in vivo was reduced by 28-38%. Pair-feeding experiments showed that this inhibition was not due to reduced energy intake. Following 14 d on K-deficient fodder, there was a further reduction (39-56%) in the incorporation of [3H]leucine into skeletal muscle protein, whereas the incorporation into plasma, heart and liver proteins was not affected. The accumulation of the non-metabolized amino acid alpha-aminoisobutyric acid in the heart and skeletal muscles was not reduced. The inhibitory effect of K deficiency on 3H-labelling of muscle protein was seen following intraperitoneal (10-240 min) as well as intravenous (10 min) injection of [3H]leucine. In addition, the incorporation of [3H]phenylalanine into skeletal muscle protein was reduced in K-depleted animals. Following acute K repletion in vivo leading to complete normalization of muscle K content, the incorporation of [3H]leucine into muscle protein showed no increase within 2 h, but reached 76 and 104% of the control level within 24 and 72 h respectively. This was associated with a rapid initial weight gain, but normal body-weight was not reached until after 7 weeks of K repletion. Following 7 d on K-deficient fodder the inhibition of growth and protein synthesis was closely correlated with the K content of the fodder (1-40 mmol/kg) and significant already at modest reductions in muscle K content. In vitro experiments with soleus muscle showed a linear relationship between the incorporation of [3H]leucine into muscle protein and K content, but the sensitivity to cellular K deficiency induced in vitro was much less pronounced than that induced in vivo. Thus, in soleus and extensor digitorum longus (EDL) muscles prepared from K-deficient rats, the incorporation of [3H]leucine was reduced by 30 and 47% respectively. This defect was completely restored by 24 h K repletion in vivo. It is concluded that in the intact organism protein synthesis and growth are very sensitive to dietary K deficiency and that this can only partly be accounted for by the reduction in cellular K content per se. The observations emphasize the need for adequate K supplies to ensure optimum utilization of food elements for protein synthesis and growth.