It has been suggested that sugar cataracts associated with diabetes mellitus result from the accumulation of excess sorbitol within lens fibrils. Swelling of lens fibrils occurs when water moves in to maintain osmotic balance; the excess water causes disruption of fibrils and cataract formation. Other studies have indicated that more than sorbitol-induced osmotic stress is involved. Our study used lenses collected from rats after 21 or 44 d of streptozotocin diabetes. Cataracts formed in untreated 44-d streptozotocin diabetic rats, but were not apparent in the 21-d untreated diabetic animals. Lens sorbitol increased in the diabetic animals both before and after cataract formation. Lens taurine varied inversely with the sorbitol content in a fashion that resulted in no net change in total lens osmoles. Lens water did not increase in the diabetic animals with or without cataracts. The aldose reductase inhibitor Sorbinil prevented the increase in lens sorbitol in both the 21- and 44-d streptozotocin diabetic rats; cataract formation was prevented in the 44-d diabetic animals. The lens water in untreated diabetic animals with cataracts did not differ from lens water in the Sorbinil-treated diabetic animals that did not develop cataracts. Sorbinil treatment of diabetic animals was associated with normalization of both lens sorbitol and taurine levels. Taurine has been shown to serve both as an osmoregulator and as an antioxidant. The apparent increase in lens osmolality attributed to sorbitol was counterbalanced by an equimolar reduction in taurine concentration. The reciprocal relationship between taurine and sorbitol reduces the likelihood of an osmotic mechanism for sugar cataractogenesis; the reduced lens taurine, however, may increase the risk of lens protein oxidation and subsequent cataract formation. Thus in vivo sugar cataract formation may be an oxidative process rather than an osmotic phenomenon.