Encystment of the intestinal protozoan, Giardia, is a key step in the life cycle that enables this parasite to be transmitted from host to host via either fecal oral, waterborne, or foodborne transmission. The process of encystment was studied by localizing cyst wall specific antigens with immunofluorescence for light microscopy and immunogold staining for field emission scanning electron microscopy. Chronological sampling of Giardia cultures stimulated with endogenous bile permitted identification of an intracellular and extracellular phase in cyst wall formation, a process which required a total of 14-16 h. The intracellular phase lasted for 8-10 h, while the extracellular phase, involved the appearance of cyst wall antigen on the trophozoite membrane, and the assembly of the filamentous layer, a process requiring an additional 4-6 h for completion of mature cysts. The extracellular phase was initiated with the appearance of cyst wall antigen on small protrusions of the trophozoite membrane (approximately 15 nm), which became enlarged with time to caplike structures ranging up to 100 nm in diameter. Caplike structures involved with filament growth were detected over the entire surface of the trophozoite including the adhesive disc and flagella. Encysting cells rounded up, lost attachment to the substratum, and became enclosed in a layer of filaments. Late stages in encystment included a "tailed" cyst in which flagella were not fully retracted into the cyst. Clusters of cysts were seen in which filaments at the surface of one cyst were connected with the surface of adjacent cysts or the "tailed" processes of adjacent cysts, suggesting that the growth of cyst wall filaments may be at the terminal end. In conclusion, the process of encystment has been shown to consist of two morphologically different stages (intracellular and extracellular) which requires 16 h for completion. Further investigation of the extracellular stage with regard to assembly of the filamentous layer of the cyst wall may lead to innovative methods for interfering with production of an intact functional cyst wall, and thereby, regulation of viable Giardia cyst release from the host.