We characterized the electrophysiological properties of a chloride channel protein isolated from bovine trachea after incorporation into planar lipid bilayers, and studied the effects of thiol-modulating agents on channel regulation both in bilayers and vesicular iodide uptake studies. Our experiments showed that this protein formed perfectly anion-selective channels in the bilayer, with an anion permeability sequence of I- (2.1) > NO3/- (1.7) > Br- (1.2) > Cl- (1.0). The conductance of this channel was 25-30 picosiemens in 150 mM Cl-, and saturated with increasing chloride concentration. This channel could be completely inhibited by 4,4'- bis(isothiocyano)-2,2'-stilbenedisulfonate. Immunoblot analysis, using polyclonal antibodies (anti-p38), revealed one major band at 140 kDa. Upon reduction with dithiothreitol, 64- and 38-kDa polypeptides were observed. Functional experiments showed that reduction was accompanied by loss of 125I- uptake and single-channel activity. In the presence of dithiothreitol, only the low molecular mass protein forms (64 and 38 kDa) were detected by anti-p38 antibodies on Western blots. Cross-linking of S-S bonds with Cu2+-o-phenanthroline led to activation of chloride channels in vesicles and bilayers. Over-aggregation of chloride channels by this S-S cross-linking reagent caused inhibition of 125I- uptake by 80-100% and the abolishment of single-channel activity. We propose that the native chloride channel from bovine trachea can exist in vivo in different structural and functional forms depending upon its thiol-disulfide oxidation reduction status. The oxidized form has a molecular mass of 140 kDa and represents a fully active chloride channel. Inactivation of this channel might occur by over-aggregation of protein subunits, or by dissociation of the 140-kDa subunit by disulfide bond reduction.