Heat treatment of intact spinach leaves was found to induce a unique thylakoid membrane association of an approximately 40 kDa stromal protein. This protein was identified as rubisco activase. Most of the rubisco activase was sequestered to the thylakoid membrane, particularly to the stroma-exposed regions, during the first 10 min of heat treatment at 42 degrees C. At lower temperatures (38-40 degrees C) the association of rubisco activase with the thylakoid membrane occurred more slowly. The temperature-dependent association of rubisco activase with the thylakoid membrane was due to a conformational change in the rubisco activase itself, not to heat-induced alterations in the thylakoid membrane. Association of the 41 kDa isoform of rubisco activase occurred first, followed by the binding of the 45 kDa isoform to the thylakoid membrane. Fractionation of thylakoid membranes revealed a specific association of rubisco activase with thylakoid-bound polysomes. Our results suggest a temperature-dependent dual function for rubisco activase. At optimal temperatures it functions in releasing inhibitory sugar phosphates from the active site of Rubisco. During a sudden and unexpected exposure of plants to heat stress, rubisco activase is likely to manifest a second role as a chaperone in association with thylakoid-bound ribosomes, possibly protecting, as a first aid, the thylakoid associated protein synthesis machinery against heat inactivation.