We have used a newly discovered reversal response of ctenophore comb plates to investigate the structural mechanisms controlling the direction of ciliary bending. High K+ concentrations cause cydippid larvae of the ctenophore Pleurobrachia to swim backward. High-speed cine films of backward-swimming animals show a 180 degree reversal in beat direction of the comb plates. Ion substitution and blocking experiments with artificial seawaters demonstrate that ciliary reversal is a Ca++-dependent response. Comb plate cilia possess unique morphological markers for numbering specific outer-doublet microtubules and identifying the sidedness of the central pair. Comb plates of forward- and backward-swimming ctenophores were frozen in different stages of the beat cycle by an "instantaneous fixation" method. Analysis of transverse and longitudinal sections of instantaneously fixed cilia showed that the assembly of outer doublets does not twist during ciliary reversal. This directly confirms the existence of radial switching mechanism regulating the sequence of active sliding on opposite sides of the axoneme. We also found that the axis of the central pair always remains perpendicular to the plane of bending; more importantly, the ultrastructural marker showed that the central pair does not rotate during a 180 degree reversal in beat direction. Thus, the orientation of the central pair does not control the direction of ciliary bending (i.e., the pattern of active sliding around the axoneme). We discuss the validity of this finding for three-dimensional as well as two-dimensional ciliary beat cycles and conclude that models of central-pair function based on correlative data alone must now be re-examined in light of these new findings on causal relations.