During exponential growth, each cell cycle of the alpha-purple bacterium Caulobacter crescentus gives rise to two different cell types: a motile swarmer cell and a sessile stalked cell. When cultures of C. crescentus are grown for extended periods in complex (PYE) medium, cells undergo dramatic morphological changes and display increased resistance to stress. After cultures enter stationary phase, most cells are arrested at the predivisional stage. For the first 6-8 days after inoculation, the colony-forming units (cfu) steadily decrease from 10(9) cfu ml(-1) to a minimum of 3x10(7) cfu ml(-1) after which cells gradually adopt an elongated helical morphology. For days 9-12, the cfu of the culture increase and stabilize around 2 x 10(8) cfu ml(-1). The viable cells have an elongated helical morphology with no constrictions and an average length of 20 microm, which is 15-20 times longer than exponentially growing cells. The level of the cell division initiation protein FtsZ decreases during the first week in stationary phase and remains at a low constant level consistent with the lack of cell division. When resuspended in fresh medium, the elongated cells return to normal size and morphology within 12 h. Cells that have returned from stationary phase proceed through the same developmental changes when they are again grown for an extended period and have not acquired a heritable growth advantage in stationary phase (GASP) compared with overnight cultures. We conclude that the changes observed in prolonged cultures are the result of entry into a new developmental pathway and are not due to mutation.