Chronic nonspherocytic hemolytic anemia has been observed in a recently described glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) variant, G6PDWayne. The mechanical properties of these erythrocytes and other G6PD variants were examined. The deformability of G6PD-deficient erythrocytes was normal, as determined by osmotic scan ektacytometry, and was not significantly affected by hemolytic crisis. In the common varieties of G6PD deficiency, the mechanical stability of the red blood cell (RBC) membrane was greater than normal, but G6PDWayne membranes were abnormally susceptible to shear-induced fragmentation. There was no evidence for a concurrent genetic defect in spectrin, because self- association constants and tryptic digests were normal. The fragility of G6PDWayne membranes appeared to be a consequence of oxidative damage to membrane thiol groups associated with a low glutathione (GSH) level in these RBCs. Associations among GSH level, thiol oxidation, and membrane instability were also found when a larger group of G6PD-deficient RBCs were examined. In normal erythrocytes, 1-chloro-2,4-dinitrobenzene was used to reduce GSH levels by 50%. Membrane thiol oxidation and membrane fragility both increased when these cells were kept at 4 degrees C for 3 to 5 days. Our findings suggest that chronic depletion of GSH leads to the destabilization of membrane skeleton through oxidation of membrane protein thiols.