1. The impact of changes in land use on stream ecosystem function is poorly understood. We studied leaf breakdown, a fundamental process of stream ecosystems, in streams that represent a range of catchment land use in the Piedmont physiographic province of the south-eastern United States. 2. We placed bags of chalk maple (Acer barbatum) leaves in similar-sized streams in 12 catchments of differing dominant land use: four forested, three agricultural, two suburban and three urban catchments. We measured leaf mass, invertebrate abundance and fungal biomass in leaf bags over time. 3. Leaves decayed significantly faster in agricultural (0.0465 day-1) and urban (0.0474 day-1) streams than in suburban (0.0173 day-1) and forested (0.0100 day-1) streams. Additionally, breakdown rates in the agricultural and urban streams were among the fastest reported for deciduous leaves in any stream. Nutrient concentrations in agricultural streams were significantly higher than in any other land-use type. Fungal biomass associated with leaves was significantly lower in urban streams; while shredder abundance in leaf bags was significantly higher in forested and agricultural streams than in suburban and urban streams. Storm runoff was significantly higher in urban and suburban catchments that had higher impervious surface cover than forested or agricultural catchments. 4. We propose that processes accelerating leaf breakdown in agricultural and urban streams were not the same: faster breakdown in agricultural streams was due to increased biological activity as a result of nutrient enrichment, whereas faster breakdown in urban streams was a result of physical fragmentation resulting from higher storm runoff. ?? 2006 The Authors.