High temperature inhibits photosynthesis by several mechanisms including deactivation of Rubisco. The inhibition of photosynthesis by high temperature and its relationship to Rubisco deactivation was studied using tobacco (Nicotiana tabaccum L. cv W38) transformed with a Rubisco activase gene inserted in the antisense orientation and untransformed controls. High temperature (42 degrees C) reduced photosynthesis in both lines of plants. However, photosynthesis recovered nearly completely in wild-type plants and very little in plants lacking Rubisco activase. The F(0)' level of chlorophyll fluorescence decreased and q(N) increased in the control plants during heating. In the antisense plants, q(N) was always high and F(0)' increased slightly during heat stress. NADP-malate dehydrogenase activation was unaffected by heat stress in control plants but was increased in the transgenic plants, consistent with a high redox status in the chloroplast. In wild-type plants, the inhibition of photosynthesis could be explained by a reversible decarbamylation of Rubisco and an acceptor-side limitation imposed on photosynthetic electron transport. However, in the anti-activase plants, carbamylation was low and constant and could not explain how photosynthesis was reduced at high temperature. Because ribulose bisphosphate was saturating at high temperature, the reduction in photosynthesis must have been caused by some impairment of Rubisco function not reflected in measurements of activation state or carbamylation status. This in vivo Rubisco impairment was not relieved upon return to lower temperature. We speculate that the reversible decarbamylation of Rubisco at moderately high temperature may be a protective mechanism by which the plant avoids more serious effects on Rubisco and the rest of the photosynthetic apparatus.