The relationship between the intracellular glutathione (GSH) concentration and the aerobic radiation response was studied in Chinese hamster ovary cells. Various degrees of GSH depletion were produced by exposure to buthionine sulfoximine (BSO) and/or diethyl maleate (DEM). Diethyl maleate did not act as a classical radiosensitizer under the experimental conditions employed, nor did exposure to DEM/BSO nonspecifically affect protein thiols as measured by thiol blotting. Dose-response curves were obtained using cells irradiated in the absence or presence of DEM/BSO, which decreased GSH levels by 90-95%. Exposure to DEM/BSO did not affect the formation of DNA single-strand breaks or DNA-protein crosslinks measured immediately after irradiation performed at ice temperatures. Analysis of survival curves indicated that the Dq was decreased by 18% when GSH depletion occurred prior to, during, and after irradiation. The DEM/BSO exposure did not affect D0. To study postirradiation conditions, cells were exposed to 10 microM DEM prior to and during irradiation, which was performed at ice temperatures. Levels of GSH were depleted by 75% by this protocol. Immediately after irradiation, the cells were rapidly warmed by the addition of 37 degrees C growth medium containing either 10 or 90 microM DEM. Addition of 10 microM DEM after irradiation did not affect the degree of depletion, which remained constant at 75%. In contrast, GSH depletion was increased to 90% 10 min after addition of the 90 microM DEM. Addition of 90 microM DEM after irradiation produced a statistically significant difference in survival compared to addition of 10 microM DEM. In a second depletion protocol, cells were exposed to 100 microM DEM at room temperature for 5 min, irradiated, incubated at 37 degrees C for 1 h, washed, and then incubated in 50 microM BSO for 24 h. This depletion protocol reduced survival by a factor of 2.6 compared to cells not exposed to the combination of DEM/BSO. Survival was not affected if the cells were exposed to the DEM or BSO alone. This was interpreted to indicate that survival was not affected by GSH depletion occurring after irradiation unless depletion was rapid and sustained. The rate of repair of sublethal and potentially lethal damage was measured and found to be independent of the DEM/BSO exposure. These experimental results in addition to previous ones (Freeman and Meredith, Int. J. Radiat. Oncol. Biol. Phys. 13, 1371-1375, 1987) were interpreted to indicate that under aerobic conditions GSH depletion may alter the expression of radiation damage by affecting metabolic fixation.