S-(Bismaleimidomethyl ether)cysteine (Cys-Mal) was synthesized as a probe for reactive thiol groups on the erythrocyte glucose carrier. Although Cys-Mal entered cells, its reaction with intracellular GSH prevented alkylation of endofacial membrane proteins, limiting its effect to the cell surface at concentrations below 5 mM. Cys-Mal irreversibly inhibited hexose transport half-maximally at 1.5 mM by decreasing the maximal rate of transport, with no effect on the affinity of substrate for the carrier. Reaction occurred with the outward-facing form of the carrier, but did not affect the ability of the carrier to change orientation. In intact cells, several exofacial proteins were labelled by [35S]Cys-Mal, including the band-4.5 glucose carrier, the labelling of which occurred on a single site sensitive to transport inhibitors. The reactive exofacial group was a thiol group, since both transport inhibition and band-4.5 labelling by Cys-Mal were abolished by the thiol-specific and impermeant compound 5,5'-dithiobis(2-nitrobenzoic acid). Selectivity for carrier labelling in cells was increased by a double differential procedure, which in turn allowed localization of the exofacial thiol group to the Mr 18,000-20,000 membrane-bound tryptic carrier fragment. In protein-depleted ghosts the exofacial thiol group was preferentially labelled at low concentrations of [35S]Cys-Mal, whereas with the reagent at 10 mM the Mr 26,000-45,000 tryptic carrier fragment was also labelled. Cys-Mal should be useful in the study of carrier thiol-group location and function.