Early processes underlying plant gravity sensing were investigated in rhizoids of Chara globularis under microgravity conditions provided by parabolic flights of the A300-Zero-G aircraft and of sounding rockets. By applying centrifugal forces during the microgravity phases of sounding rocket flights, lateral accelerations of 0.14 g, but not of 0.05 g, resulted in a displacement of statoliths. Settling of statoliths onto the subapical plasma membrane initiated the gravitropic response. Since actin controls the positioning of statoliths and restricts sedimentation of statoliths in these cells, it can be calculated that lateral actomyosin forces in a range of 2 x 10(-14) n act on statoliths to keep them in place. These forces represent the threshold value that has to be exceeded by any lateral acceleration stimulus for statolith sedimentation and gravisensing to occur. When rhizoids were gravistimulated during parabolic plane flights, the curvature angles of the flight samples, whose sedimented statoliths became weightless for 22 s during the 31 microgravity phases, were not different from those of in-flight 1g controls. However, in ground control experiments, curvature responses were drastically reduced when the contact of statoliths with the plasma membrane was intermittently interrupted by inverting gravistimulated cells for less than 10 s. Increasing the weight of sedimented statoliths by lateral centrifugation did not enhance the gravitropic response. These results provide evidence that graviperception in characean rhizoids requires contact of statoliths with membrane-bound receptor molecules rather than pressure or tension exerted by the weight of statoliths.