We have investigated the way in which the radiation absorbed by leaves affects the rate of elongation of maize (Zea mays L.) roots. In five repeated growth chamber experiments, plants previously grown at a photon irradiance of 23 mol m–2 d–1 received either 7 or 34 mol m–2 d–1 from day 10 to day 20 after germination. The elongation rate of primary roots steadily decreased for 4 d after reduction in irradiance and then stabilized at 60% of that in plants at high irradiance. The elongating zone was slightly shorter after 2 d at low irradiance, and was further reduced after 8 d. The concentrations of sucrose and glucose in the elongating zone were greatly decreased after 2 d at low irradiance and the gradient of both sugars was suppressed. The longer period at low irradiance affected neither sugar content nor gradient. In the same way, cell production rate was reduced after 2 d at low irradiance and was not appreciably decreased afterwards. The root zone with cell division was shorter in plants at low irradiance, but cell division rate remained nearly constant temporally and spatially, and was unaffected by the irradiance treatment. Our results suggest that primary events after a reduction in irradiance were a change in cell flux and sugar content in the elongating zone. Change in elongation rate was slower and probably the result of a time-related developmental effect, which may be related to the change in cell production.