This study evaluated the role of crystallins in retinal degeneration induced by chemical hypoxia. Wild-type, alphaA-crystallin (-/-), and alphaB-crystallin (-/-) mice received intravitreal injection of 12 nmol (low dose), 33 nmol (intermediate dose) or 60 nmol (high dose) cobalt chloride (CoCl(2)). Hematoxylin and eosin and TdT-mediated dUTP nick-end labeling (TUNEL) stains were performed after 24 h, 96 h, and 1 week post-injection, while immunofluorescent stains for alphaA- and alphaB-crystallin were performed 1 week post-injection. The in vitro effects of CoCl(2) on alphaB-crystallin expression in ARPE-19 cells were determined by real time RT-PCR, Western blot, and confocal microscopy and studies evaluating subcellular distribution of alphaB-crystallin in the mitochondria and cytosol were also performed. Histologic studies revealed progressive retinal degeneration with CoCl(2) injection in wild-type mice. Retinas of CoCl(2) injected mice showed transient increased expression of HIF-1alpha which was maximal 24h after injection. Intermediate-dose CoCl(2) injection was associated with increased retinal immunofluorescence for both alphaA- and alphaB-crystallin; however, after high-dose injection, increased retinal degeneration was associated with decreased levels of crystallin expression. Injection of CoCl(2) at either intermediate or high dose in alphaA-crystallin (-/-) and alphaB-crystallin (-/-) mice resulted in much more severe retinal degeneration compared to wild-type eyes. A decrease in ARPE-19 total and cytosolic alphaB-crystallin expression with increasing CoCl(2) treatment and an increase in mitochondrial alphaB-crystallin were found. We conclude that lack of alpha-crystallins accentuates retinal degeneration in chemically induced hypoxia in vivo.