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Normal and sickle cell erythrocyte membranes were examined for significant differences in their ATPase activities, thiobarbituric acid reactive products formed (measured relative to malondialdehyde), membrane protein polymerization, and number of protein-free sulfhydryl groups when treated with 0.5 mmol/L t-butylhydroperoxide (tBHP) for 30 minutes. Isolated sickle cell membranes treated with tBHP produced significantly greater inhibition in both their basal and calmodulin-stimulated Ca2+ + Mg(2+)-ATPase activities (75% inhibition in both cases) compared with that of control membranes. In addition, there was significantly more malondialdehyde formed from sickle cell membranes compared with control membranes. Oxidation caused greater protein polymerization in sickle cell membranes compared with normal membranes as demonstrated by the formation of high molecular weight polymers separated on sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gels. The number of free sulfhydryl groups present in spectrin and actin decreased more in sickle cell membranes as measured by 3H-N-ethyl maleimide autoradiography and gel scanning. To prevent enzyme inhibition, erythrocyte membranes were treated with tBHP in the presence of 1 mmol/L ascorbate, a potential antioxidant, and 1 mmol/L desferal, an iron chelator. Both ascorbate and desferal added alone with tBHP were effective in preventing inhibition of the basal and calmodulin-stimulated Ca2+ + Mg(2+)-ATPase activities in normal membranes, but in sickle cell membranes only the addition of ascorbate and desferal together offered significant protection. The enhanced oxidation observed with sickle cell membranes can be mimicked in normal white membranes by adding hemoglobin, hemin, or ferrous chloride in the presence of tBHP. In contrast to hemoglobin, ferrous chloride has the ability to enhance membrane oxidation in the presence of ascorbate with or without tBHP. Furthermore, the addition of desferal to these membranes greatly decreased the iron-ascorbate-tBHP oxidation of erythrocyte membranes as determined by the sustained ATPase activities and the reduced formation of malondialdehyde. Maximal protection was provided by 1 mmol/L desferal in the presence of 1 mmol/L ascorbate, although some protection was observed even at 10 mumol/L, the lowest concentration tested. These results are discussed in light of the pro- and anti-oxidant effects of ascorbate in the absence and presence of iron and tBHP.