1. We investigated the effects of limb immobilization (for 1 or 6 weeks) in a long leg cast after a closed tibial fracture (n = 11). Biopsies of vastus lateralis were taken on admission and after either 1 week (n = 5) or 6 weeks (n = 6) and analysed for muscle fibre type characteristics, cytochrome c oxidase activity and the abundance of GLUT4 and GLUT5 hexose transporters.

2. After 1 week of immobilization there was a significant decrease (8%) in the cross-sectional area of type I, but not type II, muscle fibres and in the protein—DNA ratio (16%) compared with the initial biopsy. Six weeks of immobilization led to further muscle atrophy compared with the initial biopsy and a further reduction in the cross-sectional area of both type I and II fibres (29% and 36% decrease respectively) and in the protein—DNA ratio (25%). No changes were observed in the free leg after 1 week. However, at the end of the 6 week study period, the cross-sectional area of both type I and II fibres of the free leg were increased (7% and 5%) and there was significant increase in the protein—DNA ratio (14%), indicating a net increase in muscle protein content.

3. Assay for cytochrome c oxidase activity showed significant reduction after 1 (30%) or 6 weeks (36%) of immobilization, reflecting a reduced capacity for oxidative metabolism. No significant changes in activity were observed in muscle from the free leg after 1 or 6 weeks of study.

4. The concentrations of GLUT4 and GLUT5 protein were determined by Western blot analysis. Limb immobilization induced a marked (50%) reduction in muscle GLUT4 protein concentration after 1 week that persisted for 6 weeks. A transient but significant increase (approximately twofold) in GLUT4 concentration was detected in muscle from the free leg after 1 week, but this returned to preimmobilization values at 6 weeks. Unlike GLUT4, no significant changes in the abundance of the GLUT5 protein were detected in either the immobilized or free leg at the end of the 1 or 6 week periods.

5. The present findings indicate that disuse rapidly induces a selective loss of activity and abundance of some non-myofibrillar proteins in humans. The decrease in GLUT4 protein abundance and cytochrome c oxidase activity during muscle disuse is consistent with a decreased capacity for glucose uptake and with a lower oxidative potential of inactive muscle. The lack of any major changes in GLUT5 protein abundance during limb immobilization indicates that the expression of some non-myofibrillar proteins is differentially regulated in response to muscle disuse.

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