We examined the DNA from chloroplasts obtained from different tissues of juvenile maize seedlings (from eight to 16 days old) and adult plants (50-58 days old). During plastid development, we found a striking progression from complex multigenomic DNA molecules to simple subgenomic molecules. The decrease in molecular size and complexity of the DNA paralleled a progressive decrease in DNA content per plastid. Most surprising, we were unable to detect DNA of any size in most chloroplasts from mature leaves, long before the onset of leaf senescence. Thus, the DNA content per plastid is not constant but varies during development from hundreds of genome copies in the proplastid to undetectable levels in the mature chloroplast. This loss of DNA from isolated, mature chloroplasts was monitored by three independent methods: staining intact chloroplasts with 4',6-diamidino-2-phenylindole (DAPI); staining at the single-molecule level with ethidium bromide after exhaustive deproteinization of lysed chloroplasts; and blot-hybridization after standard DNA isolation procedures. We propose a mechanism for the production of multigenomic chloroplast chromosomes that begins at paired DNA replication origins on linear molecules to generate a head-to-tail linear concatemer, followed by recombination-dependent replication.