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The pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) complex undergoes reversible phosphorylation catalyzed by a PDH kinase (inactivating) and a PDH phosphatase (activating). In skeletal muscle, a decreased proportion of PDH complex in the active, nonphosphorylated form (PDHa) limits glucose oxidation and promotes the conversion of pyruvate to lactate. Increased lactate formation with the accompanying hyperlactatemia is a frequent metabolic complication of sepsis. The time course for inactivation of the PDH complex in skeletal muscle during sepsis was contrasted with changes in PDHa during sterile inflammation 3, 7, or 14 days following the implantation of the foreign body nidus. Total PDH complex activity was not altered in any of the conditions examined. Sepsis, but not sterile inflammation, caused a reduction in the muscle PDHa measured 3 or 7 days following induction of sepsis. The inhibition of the muscle PDHa during sepsis was associated with a sustained hyperlactatemia. PDH kinase activity measured in extracts of mitochondria was enhanced twofold during this period. Fourteen days after induction of sepsis, there were no differences in the PDHa or plasma lactate concentrations in septic rats compared with either control or sterile inflammation. Furthermore, the PDH kinase activity was decreased to values observed in control values. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that a reduced PDHa in skeletal muscle during sepsis is responsible, in part, for the hyperlactatemia characteristic of septic hypermetabolism. Furthermore, the results provide evidence that the decrease in PDHa results from a stable stimulation of PDH kinase activity.