The concentration of glutathione (GSH) and the expressions of gamma-glutamylcysteine synthetase and gamma-glutamyltranspeptidase (GGT) were assessed in rat embryo fibroblasts (REF) displaying various stages of X-ray-induced transformation. A secondary culture of REF cells was irradiated, and a normal-immortalized cell line (X-REF-23) was isolated. Chronic exposure of X-REF-23 cells to 12-O-tetradecanoyl-phorbol-13-acetate (TPA) yielded cells (X-REF-23-TP) capable of benign tumor formation in nude mice. These cells exhibited GSH concentrations and gamma-glutamylcysteine synthetase heavy subunit mRNA levels that were approximately 50% less than those measured in X-REF-23 cells. Neither X-REF-23 nor X-REF-23-TP cells exhibited detectable GGT mRNA or activity. Administration of 3 Gy of X-rays followed by chronic TPA treatment yielded cells (X-REF-23-TPX) capable of malignant tumor formation in nude mice. These cells expressed GGT mRNA and Concanavalin-A minus GGT activity. One TPX clone (X-REF-23-TPX.1) was chosen for further characterization. Northern blotting of X-REF-23-TPX.1 cells indicated that gamma-glutamylcysteine synthetase heavy subunit mRNA levels were similar to those of X-REF-TP cells. X-REF-23-TPX.1 cells contained nearly the same amount of GSH as X-REF-23 cells. However, the ability of diethylmaleate (DEM) to deplete GSH was diminished in X-REF-23-TPX.1 cells compared with X-REF-23 cells. Furthermore, exposure of X-REF-23-TPX.1 cells to DEM stimulated GSH resynthesis such that the GSH concentration exceeded control values during exposure. The resynthesis of GSH during a DEM exposure was found to be dependent upon the expression of GGT, as demonstrated by inhibition with AT-125. These experiments indicate that ionizing radiation can lead to elevated constitutive expression of GGT in transformed REF cells and that expression of GGT activity was responsible for the increased rate of GSH repletion observed in X-REF-23-TPX.1 cells.