The turtle heart provides a model system to study the effects of anoxia on protein synthesis without the potentially confounding factor of contractile failure and decreased ATP levels. Protein synthesis, as measured by 3H-labeled phenylalanine incorporation, was studied under conditions of normoxia and anoxia in isolated perfused turtle [Trachemys (= Pseudemys) scripta elegans] hearts at 15 degrees C. Heart rate, cardiac output, and ventricular pressure development were unaffected by 2 or 3 h of anoxia. Despite the anoxia, energy levels in the heart were presumably still high, since contractility was maintained. RNA content of ventricle decreased after anoxic perfusion. Rates of total protein synthesis rates in ventricle were threefold lower under anoxia than under normoxia. These findings suggest that the total level of RNA is one determinant of protein synthesis. Incorporation of label into protein extracted from mitochondria was also assessed. The ratio of mitochondrial to whole ventricular protein synthesis was significantly lower after anoxia, revealing preferential control mechanisms under anoxia between the synthesis of total cellular protein and protein destined for mitochondria. Isolated mitochondria were still coupled after 2 or 3 h of anoxia. In effect, the mitochondria enter into a state of hypometabolism in terms of rates of ATP synthesis and protein synthesis, but functional integrity is maintained. The decrease in protein synthesis in general and mitochondrial protein synthesis in particular may represent an adaptation to allow the partitioning of the available energy resources toward mechanical function during anoxia.