Pentosidine is a recently discovered protein crosslink, involving lysine and arginine residues linked together in an imidazo [4,5,6] pyridinium ring formed by a 5-carbon sugar during nonenzymatic browning (Maillard reaction). The presence of high ascorbate levels in the human lens and its ability to undergo nonenzymatic browning led us to investigate pentosidine formation in the aging human lens. Incubation of lens crystallins with ascorbate and its oxidation products dehydroascorbate and 2,3-diketogulonate leads progressively to the formation of pentosidine crosslinks in the presence of oxygen. Under nitrogen, however, pentosidine forms only from 2,3-diketogulonate or xylosone, a degradation product of 2,3-diketogulonate. A high correlation between pentosidine crosslinks and the degree of lens pigmentation is noted in cataractous lenses. Pentosidine is found to be primarily associated with alpha-crystallin fractions of 300-5000 kDa. These results suggest that redox imbalance in cellular senescent systems such as the ocular lens may lead to irreversible ascorbate oxidation and protein crosslinking by xylosone. This mechanism may play an important role in the pathogenesis of "brunescent" cataracts.