To gain insight into the regulatory mechanisms and the signals responsible for the adaptation of higher plants to conditions of varying sulfate availability, we have isolated from a sulfate-deprived root library maize cDNAs encoding sulfate permease (ZmST1) and ATP sulfurylase (ZmAS1), the two earliest components of the sulfur assimilation pathway. The levels of ZmST1 and ZmAS1 transcripts concomitantly increased in both roots and shoots of seedlings grown under sulfate-deprived conditions, and rapidly decreased when the external sulfate supply was restored. This coordinate response, which was not observed under conditions of limiting nitrate or phosphate, correlated with the depletion of glutathione, rather than sulfate stores. However, drastically reducing glutathione levels through treatment with buthionine sulfoximine, a specific inhibitor of gamma-glutamyl cysteine synthetase, did not provide an adequate stimulus for the up-regulation of either sulfate permease or ATP sulfurylase messengers. Indeed, L-cysteine, but not D-cysteine, effectively down-regulated both transcripts when supplied to sulfur-deficient seedlings under conditions of blocked glutathione synthesis. Altogether, these data provide evidence for the coordinate regulation of sulfur assimilation mRNAs in higher plants and for the glutathione-independent involvement of cysteine as a stereospecific pretranslational modulator of the expression of sulfur status-responsive genes.