We studied the effects of acute changes in the partial pressure of arterial carbon dioxide on diaphragmatic contractility and performance in four normal men. To study contractility we measured the ability of the diaphragm to generate pressure at a given level of excitation by determining the relation between the electrical activity of the diaphragm and transdiaphragmatic pressure during a voluntary quasi-isometric inspiratory effort carried out at different levels of end-tidal carbon dioxide. Our results show that contractility was reduced with hypercapnia (when end-tidal carbon dioxide was 7.5 per cent or higher), although hypocapnia (end-tidal carbon dioxide, 3 per cent) had no effect on diaphragmatic contractility. We also studied the development of diaphragmatic fatigue before and during carbon dioxide breathing. Subjects were studied at the same diaphragmatic tension-time index, a value analogous to the more familiar myocardial tension-time index, while the same inspiratory flow was maintained. Electromyographic signs of fatigue appeared at a lower tension-time index during hypercapnia than during normocapnia, indicating that endurance is diminished during hypercapnia. These findings show that acute respiratory acidosis equivalent to an arterial carbon dioxide tension of about 54 mm Hg decreases the contractility and endurance time of the diaphragm in human beings.