A defect in urine concentrating ability occurs in individuals with sickle cell trait (HbAS). This may result from intracellular polymerization of sickle hemoglobin (HbS) in erythrocytes, leading to microvascular occlusion, in the vasa recta of the renal medulla. To test the hypothesis that the severity of the concentrating defect is related to the percentage of sickle hemoglobin present in erythrocytes, urinary concentrating ability was examined after overnight water deprivation, and intranasal desmopressin acetate (dDAVP) in 27 individuals with HbAS. The HbAS individuals were separated into those who had a normal alpha-globin genotype (alpha alpha/alpha alpha), and those who were either heterozygous (-alpha/alpha alpha) or homozygous (-alpha/-alpha) for gene-deletion alpha-thalassemia, because alpha-thalassemia modulates the HbS concentration in HbAS. The urinary concentrating ability was less in the alpha alpha/alpha alpha genotype than in the -alpha/alpha alpha or -alpha/-alpha genotypes (P less than 0.05). After dDAVP, the urine osmolality was greater in patients with the -alpha/-alpha genotype than with the -alpha/alpha alpha genotype (882 +/- 37 vs. 672 +/- 38 mOsm/kg H2O) (P less than 0.05); patients with the -alpha/alpha alpha genotype had greater concentrating ability than individuals with a normal alpha-globin gene arrangement. There was an inverse linear correlation between urinary osmolality after dDAVP and the percentage HbS in all patients studied (r = -0.654; P less than 0.05). A linear correlation also existed for urine concentrating ability and the calculated polymerization tendencies for an oxygen saturation of 0.4 and O (r = -0.62 and 0.69, respectively). We conclude that the severity of hyposthenuria in HbAS is heterogeneous. It is determined by the amount of HbS polymer, that in turn is dependent upon the percentage HbS, which is itself related to the alpha-globin genotype.