A critical role in the initiation of ripening has been proposed for pectolytic enzymes which are known to be involved in fruit softening. The hypothesis that tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.) ripening is controlled by the initial synthesis of the cell-wall-degrading enzyme polygalacturonase (EC 184.108.40.206), which subsequently liberates cell-wall-bound enzymes responsible for the initiation of ethylene synthesis and other ripening events, has been examined. A study of kinetics of ethylene evolution and polygalacturonase synthesis by individual fruits in a ripening series, employing an immunological method and protein purification to identify and measure polygalacturonase synthesis, showed that ethylene evolution preceded polygalacturonase synthesis by 20h. Exogenous ethylene stimulated the synthesis of polygalacturonase and other ripening events, when applied to mature green fruit, whereas the maintenance of fruits in a low ethylene environment delayed ripening and polygalacturonase synthesis. It is concluded that enhanced natural ethylene synthesis occurs prior to polygalacturonase production and that ethylene is responsible for triggering polygalacturonase synthesis indirectly. Possible mechanisms for ethylene action are discussed.