Reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced as intermediates in the reduction of O2 to H2O (superoxide radical, hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radical), are generally regarded as harmful products of oxygenic metabolism causing cell damage in plants, animals and microorganisms. However, oxygen radical chemistry can also play useful roles if it takes place outside of the protoplast. In plants, the production of these ROS initiated by the plasma membrane NAD(P)H oxidase can be used for controlled polymer breakdown leading to wall loosening during extension growth. Backbone cleavage of cell wall polysaccharides can be accomplished by hydroxyl radicals produced from hydrogen peroxide and superoxide in a reaction catalyzed by cell wall peroxidase. Growing plant organs such as coleoptiles or roots of maize seedlings produce these ROS specifically in the apoplast of actively growing tissues, e.g. in the epidermis of the coleoptile and the growing zone of the root. Auxin promotes the release of hydroxyl radicals when inducing elongation growth. Experimental generation of hydroxyl radicals in the wall causes an increase in wall extensibility in vitro and replaces auxin in inducing growth. Auxin-induced growth can be inhibited by scavengers of ROS or inhibitors interfering with the formation of these molecules in the cell wall. These results provide the experimental background for a novel hypothesis on the mechanism of plant cell growth in which the generation of hydroxyl radicals, initiated by the plasma membrane NAD(P)H oxidase, plays a central role.