There is a growing consensus that altered proteins are more susceptible to degradation than native proteins. The enhancement of degradation of damaged proteins may be of significance since it prevents the accumulation of damaged proteins in cells. Several proteolytic pathways have been discovered in the lens. These include ATP-independent, ATP-dependent and ATP/ubiquitin-dependent proteolytic pathways. However, the extent of involvement of these proteolytic pathways in degradation of damaged proteins is not well described. alpha-Crystallin was oxidized by exposure to 0.03-3.2 mol.OH (mol protein)-1. Modifications to the oxidized alpha-crystallin and proteolytic susceptibility of the oxidized alpha-crystallin were studied. Exposure to > 0.32 mol.OH per mole of subunit produced aggregates and fragments of alpha-crystallin. Changes in isoelectric points of the proteins were observed after exposure to 0.64 mol.OH (mol protein)-1. The extent of loss of tryptophan and sulfhydryl groups was related to the level of .OH-exposure. Carbonyl content increased progressively with increasing oxidation. When incubated with a supernatant of bovine lens epithelial cells, the .OH-modified proteins were proteolytically degraded up to three times faster than untreated alpha-crystallin. ATP stimulated the degradation of native alpha-crystallin and alpha-crystallin which was exposed to 1.6 mol.OH (mol subunit protein)-1 (alpha 1.6). Sixty-seven per cent and 100% of the ATP-dependent degradation of native alpha-crystallin and alpha 1.6 was ubiquitin-dependent, respectively. The data indicate that alpha-crystallins oxidized by .OH are recognized and degraded rapidly by cytoplasmic proteolytic systems in bovine lens epithelial cells. Both ATP-independent and ATP/ubiquitin-dependent proteolytic pathways are involved in the degradation of native and oxidized alpha-crystallin.