The current studies were performed to determine the influence of malnutrition alone or in combination with endotoxemia in promoting bacterial translocation from the gastrointestinal tract. Bacterial translocation did not occur in control, starved (up to 72 hours), or protein-malnourished (up to 21 days) mice not receiving endotoxin. Bacterial translocation to the mesenteric lymph nodes (MLNs) occurred in 80% of control mice 24 hours after receiving endotoxin (p less than 0.01). However, the combination of malnutrition plus endotoxin was associated with a higher incidence of translocation to the systemic organs (p less than 0.01), and higher numbers of bacteria per organ (p less than 0.01), than was seen in normally nourished mice receiving endotoxin. Additionally, mice that were protein malnourished were more susceptible to the lethal effects of endotoxin than were control animals, and the mortality rate was directly related to the degree of malnutrition (R2 = 0.93) (p less than 0.05). Histologically, endotoxin in combination with protein malnutrition resulted in mechanical damage to the gut mucosal barrier to bacteria. Thus, in the mice that were protein malnourished the spread of bacteria from the gut could not be controlled nor could translocated bacteria be cleared as well as normally nourished mice receiving endotoxin. These results support the concept that under certain circumstances the gut may serve as a clinically important portal of entry for bacteria.