Excised maize (Zea mays L.) root tips were used to monitor the effects of prolonged glucose starvation on nitrogen metabolism. Following root-tip excision, sugar content was rapidly exhausted, and protein content declined to 40 and 8% of its initial value after 96 and 192 h, respectively. During starvation the contents of free amino acids changed. Amino acids that belonged to the same "synthetic family" showed a similar pattern of changes, indicating that their content, during starvation, is controlled mainly at the level of their common biosynthetic steps. Asparagine, which is a good marker of protein and amino-acid degradation under stress conditions, accumulated considerably until 45 h of starvation and accounted for 50% of the nitrogen released by protein degradation at that time. After 45 h of starvation, nitrogen ceased to be stored in asparagine and was excreted from the cell, first as ammonia until 90-100 h and then, when starvation had become irreversible, as amino acids and aminated compounds. The study of asparagine metabolism and nitrogen-assimilation pathways throughout starvation showed that: (i) asparagine synthesis occurred via asparagine synthetase (EC 126.96.36.199) rather than asparagine aminotransferase (EC 188.8.131.52) or the β-cyanoalanine pathway, and asparagine degradation occurred via asparaginase (EC 184.108.40.206); and (ii) the enzymic activities related to nitrogen reduction and assimilation and amino-acid synthesis decreased continuously, whereas glutamate dehydrogenase (EC 220.127.116.11-4) activities increased during the reversible period of starvation. Considered together, metabolite analysis and enzymic-activity measurements showed that starvation may be divided into three phases: (i) the acclimation phase (0 to 30-35 h) in which the root tips adapt to transient sugar deprivation and partly store the nitrogen released by protein degradation, (ii) the survival phase (30-35 to 90-100 h) in which the root tips expel the nitrogen released by protein degradation and starvation may be reversed by sugar addition and (iii) the cell-disorganization phase (beyond 100 h) in which all metabolites and enzymic activities decrease and the root tips die.