The sulfhydryl reagent 5, 5'-dithiobis (2-nitrobenzoic acid) (DTNB) was used to study the functional role of an exofacial sulfhydryl group on the human erythrocyte hexose carrier. Above 1 mM DTNB rapidly inhibited erythrocyte 3-O-methylglucose influx, but only to about half of control rates. Efflux was also inhibited, but to a lesser extent. Uptake inhibition was completely reversed by incubation and washing with 10 mM cysteine, whereas it was only partially reduced by washing in buffer alone, suggesting both covalent and noncovalent interactions. The covalent thiol-reversible reaction of DTNB occurred on the exofacial carrier, since (i) penetration of DTNB into cells was minimal, (ii) blockade of potential uptake via the anion transporter did not affect DTNB-induced hexose transport inhibition, and (iii) DTNB protected from transport inhibition by the impermeant sulfhydryl reagent glutathione-maleimide-I. Maltose at 120 mM accelerated the covalent transport inhibition induced by DTNB, whereas 6.5 microM cytochalasin B had the opposite effect, indicating under the one-site carrier model that the reactive sulfhydryl is on the outward-facing carrier but not in the substrate-binding site. In contrast to glutathione-maleimide-I, however, DTNB did not restrict the ability of the carrier to reorient inwardly, since it did not affect equilibrium cytochalasin B binding. Thus, carrier conformation determines exposure of the exofacial carrier sulfhydryl, but reaction of this group may not always "lock" the carrier in an outward-facing conformation.