Reported findings of elevated total calcium (Ca) contents in erythrocytes (RBCs) from patients with beta-thalassemia intermedia (beta-TI) prompted the question of whether the state and transport of Ca in these RBCs are similar to those in sickle cell anemia (SS) RBCs where the increased Ca is compartmentalized in endocytic inside-out vesicles and extracted by exposure of the cells to the Ca ionophore A23187 and a Ca chelator (ethylene glycol tetraacetic acid) and the levels of cytoplasmic free ionized Ca [( Ca2+]i) are normal. We confirmed a high total Ca content of 51 +/- 13 mumol/L RBCs in splenectomized (SPX) beta-TI and 24 +/- 1 mumol/L RBCs in non-SPX beta- TI. Unlike SS RBCs, however, most of the increased Ca was in the lighter, presumably younger beta-TI RBCs, and about half the Ca was not ionophore mobilizable but apparently firmly bound, possibly to remnants of organelles in nucleated and other young RBCs. In the denser RBCs from non-SPX beta-TI, total and extractable Ca amounts were normal. beta-TI RBCs loaded with the Ca chelator Benz 2 showed an initial influx of 45Ca in the normal range, which indicated normal Ca permeability, and near-steady-state levels of [Ca2+]i that were normal (22 +/- 7 nmol/L RBCs in non-SPX beta-TI) or minimally increased (40 +/- 19 nmol/L RBCs in SPX beta-TI). Serial-section electron microscopy of beta-TI ghosts from the denser cell fractions showed more fully enclosed vesicles in non-SPX ghosts than were seen in normal ghosts and many large vesicles and structured, electron-dense material in SPX ghosts. A delayed extrusion of ionophore-preloaded 45Ca only by the SPX beta-TI RBCs together with normal [Ca2+]i suggested compartmentalization of the loaded Ca in these RBCs, perhaps in endocytic inside-out vesicles, and normal Ca pumps. Since beta-TI RBCs show essentially normal levels of [Ca2+]i and normal Ca influx, their high total Ca content should not be associated with any of the deleterious effects observed in vitro with increased levels of [Ca2+]i.

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