Aerobic organisms possess a number of often overlapping and well-characterized defenses against common oxidants such as superoxide and hydrogen peroxide. However, much less is known of mechanisms of defense against halogens such as chlorine compounds. Although chlorine-based oxidants may oxidize a number of cellular components, sulfhydrl groups are particularly reactive. We have, therefore, assessed the importance of intracellular glutathione in protection of Escherichia coli cells against hydrogen peroxide, hypochlorous acid, and chloramines. Employing a glutathione-deficient E. coli strain (JTG10) and an otherwise isogenic glutathione-sufficient E. coli strain (AB1157), we find that glutathione-deficient organisms are approximately twice as sensitive to killing by both hydrogen peroxide and chlorine compounds. However, the mode of protection by glutathione in these two cases appears to differ: exogenous glutathione added to glutathione-deficient E. coli in amounts equal to those which would be present in a similar suspension of the wild-type bacteria fully restored resistance of glutathione-deficient bacteria to chlorine-based oxidants but did not change resistance to hydrogen peroxide. Furthermore, in protection against chlorine compounds, oxidized glutathione is almost as effective as reduced glutathione, implying that the tripeptide and/or oxidized thiol undergo further reactions with chlorine compounds. Indeed, in vitro, 1 mol of reduced glutathione will react with approximately 3.5 to 4.0 mol of hypochlorous acid. We conclude that glutathione defends E. coli cells against attack by chlorine compounds and hydrogen peroxide but, in the case of the halogen compounds, does so nonenzymatically and sacrificially.