The carbon isotope composition of the halophyte Mesembryanthemum crystallinum L. (Aizoaceae) changes when plants are exposed to environmental stress and when they shift from C(3) to crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM). We examined the coupling between carbon isotope composition and photosynthetic pathway by subjecting plants of different ages to salinity and humidity treatments. Whole shoot delta(13)C values became less negative in plants that were exposed to 400 mM NaCl in the hydroponic solution. The isotopic change had two components: a direct NaCl effect that was greatest in plants still operating in the C(3) mode and decreased proportionally with increasing levels of dark fixation, and a second component related to the degree of CAM expression. Ignoring the presumably diffusion-related NaCl effect on carbon isotope ratios results in an overestimation of nocturnal CO(2) gain in comparison to an isotope versus nocturnal CO(2) gain calibration established previously for C(3) and CAM species grown under well-watered conditions. It is widely taken for granted that the shift to CAM in M. crystallinum is partially under developmental control and that CAM is inevitably expressed in mature plants. Plants, cultivated under non-saline conditions and high relative humidity (RH) for up to 63 days, maintained diel CO(2) gas-exchange patterns and delta(13)C values typical of C(3) plants. However, a weak CAM gas-exchange pattern and an increase in delta(13)C value were observed in non-salt-treated plants grown at reduced RH. These observations are consistent with environmental control rather than developmental control of the induction of CAM in mature M. crystallinum under non-saline conditions.