Chronic renal failure (CRF) is associated with negative nitrogen balance and loss of lean body mass. To identify specific proteolytic pathways activated by CRF, protein degradation was measured in incubated epitrochlearis muscles from CRF and sham-operated, pair-fed rats. CRF stimulated muscle proteolysis, and inhibition of lysosomal and calcium-activated proteases did not eliminate this increase. When ATP production was blocked, proteolysis in CRF muscles fell to the same level as that in control muscles. Increased proteolysis was also prevented by feeding CRF rats sodium bicarbonate, suggesting that activation depends on acidification. Evidence that the ATP-dependent ubiquitin-proteasome pathway is stimulated by the acidemia of CRF includes the following findings: (a) An inhibitor of the proteasome eliminated the increase in muscle proteolysis; and (b) there was an increase in mRNAs encoding ubiquitin (324%) and proteasome subunits C3 (137%) and C9 (251%) in muscle. This response involved gene activation since transcription of mRNAs for ubiquitin and the C3 subunit were selectively increased in muscle of CRF rats. We conclude that CRF stimulates muscle proteolysis by activating the ATP-ubiquitin-proteasome-dependent pathway. The mechanism depends on acidification and increased expression of genes encoding components of the system. These responses could contribute to the loss of muscle mass associated with CRF.