The permeability (P) of the gaseous diffusion barrier in the nodules of soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] decreases when water deficits are extended over a 7 to 10 d period. The mechanism controlling P changes is unclear, but may result from the release of water to intercellular pathways, and an associated change in the nodule water potential. The purpose of these experiments was to impose water deficit treatments rapidly in order to determine the early sequence of the responses of nodule water potential and nodule gas exchange without the complications that arise from long-term water deficit treatments. A vertical, split-root system was used to separate nodule drying effects from plant water deficits by replacing humidified air that was passed over upper root nodules in well-watered plants with dry air, or by replacing the nutrient solution that surrounded lower roots with -1.0 MPa polyethylene glycol (PEG) solution, or by a combination of the dry air and PEG treatments. The PEG treatment caused large decreases in both the components of nodule water potential and nodule relative water content, but there was no indication that these factors had immediate, direct effects on either nitrogenase activity or P. After 7 h of the PEG treatment a significant decrease in nitrogenase activity was found but no decrease in P was detected. These results indicate that changes in nitrogenase activity in response to water deficits precede decreases in P. Exposure of nodules to dry air in well-watered plants had no significant effect on either nitrogenase activity or P during the 7 h treatment.