The major cellular antioxidant, glutathione, is mostly localized in the cytosol but a small portion is found in mitochondria. We have recently shown that highly selective depletion of mitochondrial glutathione in astrocytes in culture markedly increased cell death induced by the peroxynitrite donor, 3-morpholino-syndnonimine. The present study was aimed at characterizing the increase in susceptibility arising from mitochondrial glutathione loss and testing the possibility that elevating this metabolite pool above normal values could be protective. The increased vulnerability of astrocytes with depleted mitochondrial glutathione to Sin-1 was confirmed. Furthermore, these cells showed marked increases in sensitivity to hydrogen peroxide and also to high concentrations of the nitric oxide donor, S-nitroso-N-acetyl-penicillamine. The increase in cell death was mostly due to necrosis as indicated by substantially increased release of lactate dehydrogenase and staining of nuclei with propidium iodide but little change in annexin V staining and caspase 3 activation. The enhanced cell loss was blocked by prior restoration of the mitochondrial glutathione content. It was also essentially fully inhibited by treatment with cyclosporin A, consistent with a role for the mitochondrial permeability transition in the development of cell death. Susceptibility to the classical apoptosis inducer, staurosporine, was only affected to a small extent in contrast to the response to the other substances tested. Incubation of normal astrocytes with glutathione monoethylester produced large and long-lasting increases in mitochondrial glutathione content with much smaller effects on the cytosolic glutathione pool. This treatment reduced cell death on exposure to 3-morpholino-syndnonimine or hydrogen peroxide but not S-nitroso-N-acetyl-pencillamine or staurosporine. These findings provide evidence for an important role for mitochondrial glutathione in preserving cell viability during periods of oxidative or nitrative stress and indicate that increases in this glutathione pool can confer protection against some of these stressors.