The shape of the human erythrocyte is normally maintained in vivo as a biconcave disc for 120 days. In vitro, the cell shape can be altered readily by amphipathic compounds; however, given time and an energy source, the cells can recover the discoid morphology. An active shape control mechanism is postulated to regulate erythrocyte shape. The shape recovery process is a necessary element in reversing perturbations of shape and is basic to our understanding of how membrane shape is altered. We report here that the process of shape recovery from crenation is dramatically accelerated upon pretreatment of the cells with micromolar (20-100 microM) concentrations of chloromethyl ketone peptides [such as N-alpha-tosyl-L-phenylalanine-chloromethyl ketone (tos-pheCH2Cl)]. Such pretreatments do not appear to affect cellular viability, as judged by their normal biconcave disc shape, their sensitivity to crenators, their lactic acid production, or the ATP-dependent shape change of the purified membranes. Treatment with high concentrations of tos-pheCH2Cl does cause normal cells to become stomatocytic by an energy-requiring process, i.e., it requires glucose, incubation at 37 degrees C, and will not occur in ATP-depleted cells. We suggest that the chloromethyl ketone peptides affect a metabolic process that is associated with the hexose monophosphate (HMP) shunt. Through the alteration of the HMP shunt metabolism, they modify an active stomatocytic process in the erythrocyte that can correct for the perturbation caused by crenators. Implications of these findings for analogous phenomena in cultured cells are discussed.