1. Protein loss in muscle can be caused by decreased protein synthesis, increased breakdown or both. In small animals the tracer incorporation technique is mostly used to measure protein synthesis, but for degradation measurements in vitro or ex vivo settings are required. In human and large animal studies the arteriovenous dilution technique is used because it enables the measurement of synthesis and breakdown rates simultaneously. The applicability in small animals has not yet been proven. We used a starvation model to compare both techniques.

2. A primed constant infusion of l-[2,6-3H]phenylalanine was given to male Lewis rats after 16, 40, 64 and 112 h starvation. Protein synthesis rates of the gastrocnemius muscle were measured by the incorporation technique and compared with hindquarter protein turnover calculated in a two- and three-compartment arteriovenous dilution model.

3. Whole-body phenylalanine rate of appearance decreased from 456 ± 32 after 16 h to 334 ± 34 (nmol min−1 100 g−1 body weight) after 112 h starvation. Protein synthesis rates of the gastrocnemius muscle measured by the tracer incorporation technique decreased from 3.6 ± 0.4 after 16 h starvation to 2.2 ± 0.3 after 64 h starvation and 1.8 ± 0.4 (%/day) after 112h starvation. Hindquarter protein breakdown, calculated with the tracer dilution model, increased after 112 h starvation from 28 ± 12 to 77 ± 15 nmol min−1 100 g−1 body weight. Using the tracer dilution model, however, the calculated protein synthesis rate across the hindquarter also increased after prolonged starvation (29 ± 7 and 68 ± 16 nmol min−1 100 g−1 body weight after 16 and 112h respectively). In conjunction with this, calculated bidirectional membrane transport rates were also enhanced. Using valine and glutamine as tracers, the enhanced amino acid turnover rates were confirmed.

4. In conclusion, our results show that during short periods of starvation both methods give similar results. After prolonged starvation, however, an opposite change in disappearance rate and protein synthesis rate was observed. Assumptions made to calculate protein turnover using the arteriovenous dilution model may account for the discrepancy and care must be taken with the interpretation when using only one model in anaesthetized small animals.

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