Experiments were conducted to determine the relative contributions of ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (Rubisco; EC 220.127.116.11) activation state vis-a-vis Rubisco activase and metabolite levels to the inhibition of cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) photosynthesis by heat stress. Exposure of leaf tissue in the light to temperatures of 40 or 45 degrees C decreased the activation state of Rubisco to levels that were 65 or 10%, respectively, of the 28 degrees C control. Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate (RuBP) levels increased in heat-stressed leaves, whereas the 3-phosphoglyceric acid pool was depleted. Heat stress did not affect Rubisco per se, as full activity could be restored by incubation with CO2 and Mg2+. Inhibition and recovery of Rubisco activation state and carbon dioxide exchange rate (CER) were closely related under moderate heat stress (up to 42.5 degrees C). Moderate heat stress had negligible effect on Fv/Fm, the maximal quantum yield of photosystem II. In contrast, severe heat stress (45 degrees C) caused significant and irreversible damage to Rubisco activation, CER, and Fv/Fm. The rate of Rubisco activation after alleviating moderate heat stress was comparable to that of controls, indicating rapid reversibility of the process. However, moderate heat stress decreased both the rate and final extent of CER activation during dark-to-light transition. Treatment of cotton leaves with methyl viologen or an oxygen-enriched atmosphere reduced the effect of heat stress on Rubisco inactivation. Both treatments also reduced tissue RuBP levels, indicating that the amount of RuBP present during heat stress may influence the degree of Rubisco inactivation. Under both photorespiratory and non-photorespiratory conditions, the inhibition of the CER during heat stress could be completely reversed by increasing the internal partial pressure of CO2 (Ci). However, the inhibition of the CER by nigericin, a K+ ionophore, was not reversible when the Ci was increased at ambient or high temperature. Our results indicate that inhibition of photosynthesis by moderate heat stress is not caused by inhibition of the capacity for RuBP regeneration. We conclude that heat stress inhibits Rubisco activation via a rapid and direct effect on Rubisco activase, possibly by perturbing Rubisco activase subunit interactions with each other or with Rubisco.