During sepsis or after injection of endotoxin into rats, there is a large increase in muscle protein breakdown and prostaglandin E2 (PEG2) production. Prior studies showed that partially purified interleukin 1 (IL-1) from human monocytes can stimulate these processes when added to isolated rat muscles. The availability of pure recombinant IL-1 and other monokines has allowed us to investigate the identity of the active agent in this process. Incubation of muscles with recombinant human or murine IL-1 alpha or IL-1 beta or with IL-1 plus a phorbol ester did not stimulate muscle proteolysis or PGE2 production. Homogeneous natural porcine IL-1 ("catabolin") and mouse or human IL-1 beta were also not effective in vitro. In addition, a variety of other human cytokines, including tumor necrosis factor ("cachectin"), epidermal thymocyte-activating factor, eosinophil cytotoxicity-enhancing factor, interferon-alpha, beta, and gamma, platelet-derived growth factor, and transforming growth factor (TGF) beta, which are all released by activated macrophages, TGF-alpha, or mixtures of these polypeptides, also failed to activate proteolysis or PGE2 production. By contrast, a large increase in net protein breakdown could be induced in the rat soleus by polypeptides released from porcine monocytes or by the serum from febrile cattle which had been injected with Pasteurella haemolytica or bovine rhinotracheitis virus. Therefore, a still-unidentified product of activated monocytes appears to be responsible for the negative nitrogen balance that accompanies infectious illness.