We sought to determine the extent to which the loss of lean body mass and nitrogen during inactivity was due to alterations in skeletal muscle protein metabolism. Six male subjects were studied during 7 days of diet stabilization and after 14 days of stimulated microgravity (-6 degrees bed rest). Nitrogen balance became more negative (P < 0.03) during the 2nd wk of bed rest. Leg and whole body lean mass decreased after bed rest (P < 0.05). Serum cortisol, insulin, insulin-like growth factor I, and testosterone values did not change. Arteriovenous model calculations based on the infusion of L-[ring-13C6]-phenylalanine in five subjects revealed a 50% decrease in muscle protein synthesis (PS; P < 0.03). Fractional PS by tracer incorporation into muscle protein also decreased by 46% (P < 0.05). The decrease in PS was related to a corresponding decrease in the sum of intracellular amino acid appearance from protein breakdown and inward transport. Whole body protein synthesis determined by [15N]alanine ingestion on six subjects also revealed a 14% decrease (P < 0.01). Neither model-derived nor whole body values for protein breakdown change significantly. These results indicate that the loss of body protein with inactivity is predominantly due to a decrease in muscle PS and that this decrease is reflected in both whole body and skeletal muscle measures.