The capacity of ulvan, a sulphated heteropolysaccharide, to prime the chitin- and chitosan-elicited oxidative burst in wheat and rice cells was tested. Gas-liquid chromatography showed that ulvan was composed of rhamnose, xylose, glucuronic acid, glucose and galactose. It contained very low amounts of proteins and ca. 19% sulphate groups. The polymer did not elicit the production of hydrogen peroxide in suspension-cultured wheat or rice cells. Furthermore, in both cell cultures, the simultaneous addition of ulvan and chitin hexamer or chitosan polymer did not significantly alter the intensity of the oxidative burst caused by the elicitors alone. However, pretreatment of wheat cells with ulvan increased the chitin-elicited oxidative burst about five- to sixfold, and that elicited by chitosan about twofold. In rice cells, the production of H2O2 elicited by chitin or chitosan was strongly primed by pretreatment with the same concentration of ulvan, increasing the burst triggered by the elicitors alone by 150 and 80 times, respectively. Pretreatment of whole plants with ulvan significantly reduced the symptom severity of Blumeria graminis infection, by 45% in wheat and by 80% in barley. Thus, the priming activity of ulvan on the oxidative burst correlates with a decrease of disease symptoms in infected plants. This is apparently the first report on priming activity of a natural algal polysaccharide.