The present study was designed to determine whether sodium phenylbutyrate (phi B) acutely induces a decrease in plasma glutamine in healthy humans, and, if so, will decrease estimates of whole body protein synthesis. In a first group of three healthy subjects, graded doses (0, 0.18, and 0.36 g.kg-1.day-1) of phi B were administered for 24 h before study: postabsorptive plasma glutamine concentration declined in a dose-dependent manner, achieving an approximately 25% decline for a dose of 0.36 g phi B.kg-1.day-1. A second group of six healthy adults received 5-h infusions of L-[1-14C]leucine and L-[1-13C]glutamine in the postabsorptive state on two separate days: 1) under baseline conditions and 2) after 24 h of oral treatment with phi B (0.36 g.kg-1.day-1) in a randomized order. The 24-h phenylbutyrate treatment was associated with 1) an approximately 26% decline in plasma glutamine concentration from 514 +/- 24 to 380 +/- 15 microM (means +/- SE; P < 0.01 with paired t-test) with no change in glutamine appearance rate or de novo synthesis; 2) no change in leucine appearance rate (Ra), an index of protein breakdown (123 +/- 7 vs. 117 +/- 5 mumol.kg-1.h-1; not significant); 3) an approximately 22% rise in leucine oxidation (Ox) from 23 +/- 2 to 28 +/- 2 mumol.kg-1.h-1 (P < 0.01), resulting in an approximately 11% decline in nonoxidative leucine disposal (NOLD = Ra-Ox), an index of protein synthesis, from 100 +/- 6 to 89 +/- 5 mumol.kg-1.h-1 (P < 0.05). The data suggest that, in healthy adults, 1) large doses of oral phenylbutyrate can be used as a "glutamine trap" to create a model of glutamine depletion; 2) a moderate decline in plasma glutamine does not enhance rates of endogenous glutamine production; and 3) a short-term depletion of plasma glutamine decrease estimates of whole body protein synthesis.