This study related ATP levels with membrane damage, lipid abnormalities, and cell death in energy-depleted LLC-PK1 cells. Oxidative phosphorylation was inhibited by antimycin A, and glycolysis was regulated by graded glucose deprivation to achieve stepwise ATP depletion. Over a range of ATP levels down to approximately equal to 5% of normal, over 5 h, cells were altered only minimally, or injured reversibly. Such cells maintained mitochondrial potential, and retained more K+ than cells without an energy source. Over the same duration, cells without an energy source were lethally injured. Treatment with antimycin induced increments of triglycerides and decreases of phospholipids. With severe ATP depletion (approximately equal to 5-10% of normal after 5 h), decrease of phospholipids was marked. Cells in which ATP was not measurable (or was less than 5% of normal) showed comparable phospholipid declines but, in addition, showed massive and progressive increase of unesterified fatty acids. The results identified a low threshold of ATP, at best 5-10% of normal, which preserved viability in LLC-PK1 cells despite major loss of membrane phospholipids. This threshold also determined the ability of cells to maintain their normally low levels of unesterified fatty acids. Failure of energy-dependent mechanisms that normally metabolize unesterified fatty acids may be a correlate of the extent of energy depletion that determines lethal injury.