We have demonstrated that addition of L-glutamate in millimolar amounts to a culture of C6 glioma cells induced cell death within 24 h. The glutamate-induced toxicity in the C6 glioma cells was completely suppressed by adding L-cystine (0.4-1.0 mM), while the C6 cells degenerated in L-cystine-deprived culture medium. Kinetic studies of [35S]cystine and [3H]glutamate uptake showed that cystine competitively inhibited glutamate uptake, and conversely glutamate inhibited cystine uptake competitively, suggesting that C6 cells have a cystine/glutamate antiporter (system CG or Xc) similar to that already described in the periphery. Exogenous cystine (1 mM) stimulated a release of endogenous glutamate from C6 cells in a Na(+)-independent Cl(-)-dependent fashion. Thus, the antiporter normally transports glutamate out of and cystine into the cells. With the glutamate analogues tested, there was a good correlation between cytotoxicity and inhibition of cystine uptake. The de novo synthesis of glutathione was largely dependent upon the uptake of extracellular cystine. Intracellular levels of glutathione were dramatically decreased within 8-10 h by culture in glutamate-added or cystine-free medium. Vitamin E (100 microM), an antioxidant, rescued the death of C6 cells induced by glutamate exposure or by culture in cystine-deprived medium, but did not restore the apparent decrease of intracellular glutathione. Taken together, the present data strongly indicate that glutamate-induced cell death is initially due to inhibition of cystine uptake through the antiporter Xc system; such inhibition leads to glutathione depletion exposing the cells to oxidative stress. Excess of extracellular glutamate introduced from endogenous or exogenous roots might disorder this mechanism, resulting in cell death.