Changes in the vacuolation in root apex cells of soybean (Glycine max L. [Merr.]) seedlings grown in microgravity were investigated. Spaceflight and ground control seedlings were grown in the absence or presence of KMnO4 (to remove ethylene) for 6 days. After landing, in order to study of cell ultrastructure and subcellular free calcium ion distribution, seedling root apices were fixed in 2.5% (w/v) glutaraldehyde in 0.1 M cacodylate buffer and 2% (w/v) glutaraldehyde, 2.5% (w/v) formaldehyde, 2% (w/v) potassium antimonate K[Sb(OH 6] in 0.1 M K2HPO4 buffer with an osmolarity (calculated theoretically) of 0.45 and 1.26 osmol. The concentrations of ethylene in all spaceflight canisters were significantly higher than in the ground control canisters. Seedling growth was reduced in the spaceflight-exposed plants. Additionally, the spaceflight-exposed plants exhibited progressive vacuolation in the root apex cells, particularly in the columella cells, to a greater degree than the ground controls. Plasmolysis was observed in columella cells of spaceflight roots fixed in solutions with relatively high osmolarity (1.26 osmol). The appearance of plasmolysis permitted the evaluation of the water status of cells. The water potential of the spaceflight cells was higher than the surrounding fixative solution. A decrease in osmotic potential and/or an increase in turgor potential may have induced increases in cell water potential. However, the plasmolysed (i.e. non-turgid) cells implied that increases in water potential were accompanied with a decrease in osmotic potential. In such cells changes in vacuolation may have been involved to maintain turgor pressure or may have been a result of intensification of other vacuolar functions like digestion and storage. © 2003 COSPAR. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.