Lipophosphoglycan (LPG) of Leishmania is a polymorphic molecule comprising an alkylglycerol anchor, a conserved oligosaccharide core and a species-specific polymer of oligosaccharide repeats jointed by phosphodiester bonds. This molecule, together with the membrane polypeptide gp63, has been implicated as a parasite receptor for host macrophages. To examine the role of LPG in parasite infectivity glycosylation variants of Leishmania major were generated by chemical mutagenesis of a virulent cloned line V121 and variants with modified LPG selected using the galactose-specific lectin Ricinus communis II (RCA II). Twenty RCA II-resistant primary clones were generated. Analysis of LPG profile by immunoblotting using LPG-specific monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies revealed that some of the clones were LPG-deficient. Three clones that did not bind any LPG-specific antibodies but expressed normal levels of the Mr 63,000 glycoprotein (gp63), a second parasite receptor for host, were chosen for detailed studies. All three clones expressed, at least to some extent, a surface molecule which could be labeled by mild periodate oxidation and sodium borotritide and behaved like LPG by hydrophobic interaction chromatography. All clones also bound a well-characterized monoclonal antibody L157 directed to the core oligosaccharide of LPG, but did not bind another monoclonal antibody, CA7AE, to an epitope on a repeating unit shared by Leishmania donovani and L. major LPG. A third monoclonal antibody, 5E6, recognizing LPG on the surface of wild-type V121 promastigotes bound only to RCA II-resistant clone 3A2-C3 and was restricted to an internal structure. The LPG molecule that this clone expressed was a form of LPG by its chromatographic behavior and by its monosaccharide and alkylglycerol composition. Clone 3A2-C3 was the only one to infect mice in vivo and survive in macrophages in vitro, albeit at a much reduced rate compared to wild-type V121 promastigotes. The data suggest that some form of LPG may be necessary to ensure parasite infectivity.