Raman spectroscopic comparisons of erythrocyte membranes from 20 patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and 8 age-matched controls indicate a prominent and consistent protein anomaly in the patient samples. This was apparent in the following: (a) CH-stretching signals from control membranes reveal a thermotropic transition at 15.6 degrees C, attributable to a protein/lipid phase that is lacking in dystrophic membranes. (b) CH-stretching signals from control membranes also show a protein transition at 39 degrees C [pH 7.4] that is shifted to 45 degrees in dystrophic membranes. (c) A reduction in pH to 5.7 shifts this transition from 39 degrees C to 7 degrees C in normal membranes and from 45 degrees C to 24 degrees C in dystrophic membranes. (d) The Amide I/Amide III regions indicate a significant proportion of beta-structured peptide in dystrophic but not normal membranes. (e) Analysis of tyrosine signals indicates greater polar exposure of tyrosine hydroxyl groups in dystrophic vs normal membranes. All of the differences between dystrophic and normal membranes are highly significant (P less than 0.001).