When detergent-extracted, demembranated cell models of Chlamydomonas were resuspended in reactivation solutions containing less than 10(-8) M Ca++, many models initially swam in helical paths similar to those of intact cells; others swam in circles against the surface of the slide or coverslip. With increasing time after reactivation, fewer models swam in helices and more swam in circles. This transition from helical to circular swimming was the result of a progressive inactivation of one of the axonemes; in the extreme case, one axoneme was completely inactive whereas the other beat with a normal waveform. At these low Ca++ concentrations, the inactivated axoneme was the trans-axoneme (the one farthest from the eyespot) in 70-100% of the models. At 10(-7) or 10(-6) M Ca++, cell models also proceeded from helical to circular swimming as a result of inactivation of one of the axonemes; however, under these conditions the cis-axoneme was usually the one that was inactivated. At 10(-8) M Ca++, most cells continued helical swimming, indicating that both axonemes were remaining relatively active. The progressive, Ca++-dependent inactivation of the trans- or cis-axoneme was reversed by switching the cell models to higher or lower Ca++ concentrations, respectively. A similar reversible, selective inactivation of the trans-flagellum occurred in intact cells swimming in medium containing 0.5 mM EGTA and no added Ca++. The results show that there are functional differences between the two axonemes of Chlamydomonas. The differential responses of the axonemes to submicromolar concentrations of Ca++ may form the basis for phototactic turning.