Gravitropism in roots has been proposed to depend on a downward redistribution of calcium across the root cap. However, because of the many calcium-binding sites in the apoplast, redistribution might not result in a physiologically effective change in the apoplasmic calcium activity. To test whether there is such a change, we measured the effect of gravistimulation on the calcium activity of statocyte cell walls with calcium-specific microelectrodes. Such a measurement must be made on a tissue with gravity sensing cells at the surface. To obtain such a tissue, decapped maize roots (Zea mays L. cv. Golden Cross Bantam) were grown for 31 h to regenerate gravitropic sensitivity, but not root caps. The calcium activity in the apoplasm surrounding the gravity-sensing cells could then be measured. The initial pCa was 2.60 +/- 0.28 (approx 2.5 mM). The calcium activity on the upper side of the root tip remained constant for 10 min after gravistimulation, then decreased 1.7-fold. On the lower side, after a similar lag the calcium activity increased 1.6-fold. Control roots, which were decapped but measured before recovering gravisensitivity (19 h), showed no change in calcium activity. To test whether this gradient is necessary for gravitropic curvature, we eliminated the calcium activity gradient during gravitropism by applying a mobile calcium-binding site (dinitro-BAPTA; 1,2-bis(2-amino-5-nitro-phenoxy)ethane-N,N,N',N'-tetraacetic acid) to the root cap; this treatment eliminated gravicurvature. A calcium gradient may be formed by proton-induced calcium desorption if there is a proton gradient. Preventing the formation of apoplastic pH gradients, using 10 and 50 mM 2-(N-morpholino)ethanesulfonic acid (Mes) buffer or 10 mM fusicoccin to stimulate proton excretion maximally, did not inhibit curvature; therefore the calcium gradient is not a secondary effect of a proton gradient. We have found a distinct and rapid differential in the apoplasmic calcium activity between the upper and lower sides of gravistimulated maize root tips which is necessary for gravitropism.