Previously, we have demonstrated a parallel between most-dense (bouyant density) sickle erythrocyte subpopulations and most-dense aged normal red cells in the organization of membrane components in the intact cell. The present study has addressed the possibility that a corresponding similarity may exist between most-dense sickled red cell subpopulations and aged normal erythrocytes in the development of membrane protein components that function as receptors for autologous immunoglobulin (Ig). Autologous IgG retained by density-fractionated erythrocytes has been estimated by a nonequilibrium 125I-protein A (Staphylococcus aureus) binding assay. Results show that most-dense sickle cell fractions contain more (2.7-fold and 1.8-fold, P less than .005) cell-bound IgG in comparison to younger sickle erythrocyte fractions sedimenting at low density. Parallel findings were obtained after similar analyses of normal (homozygous-A) erythrocyte fractions. Detection of the presence of specific IgG was also carried out by direct binding of fluorescein isothiocyanate-conjugated anti-human IgG to density-separated red cell fractions followed by analyses of the fluorescent cell populations by flow cytometry. Results showed significantly higher levels of IgG bound to most-dense (12.1% +/- 2.5% and 8.8% +/- 0.5%-) sickle red cell subpopulations (P less than .005) in comparison to younger sickle erythrocyte fractions sedimenting at low densities (3.8% +/- 0.32% and 4.7% +/- 1.6% IgG-positive red cell subpopulation). These results indicate that some of the same membrane changes that occur at about 120 days in normal red cells are also apparent in the chronologically younger (life span in vivo, ten to 40 days) sickle erythrocyte. The increased retention of IgG by most-dense irreversibly sickled cell-enriched fractions in comparison to least- dense reversibly sickled cells or pre-irreversibly sickled erythrocyte fractions, suggests that alterations in the topography of the sickle cell membrane during the transformation in vivo to the most-dense irreversibly sickled cell morphology may produce the unmasking of cryptic antigenic sites. In addition, these findings may indicate that opsonization of specific erythrocyte subpopulations may play a role in the pathophysiology of sickle cell disease.