Macrocilia of the ctenophore Beroë undergo Ca/Ba/Sr-dependent activation of ciliary beating and microtubule sliding disintegration [Tamm, J. Comp. Physiol. A163:23-31, 1988a; Tamm, Cell Motil. Cytoskeleton 11:126-138, 1988b; Tamm, Cell Motil. Cytoskeleton 12:104-112, 1989; Tamm and Tamm, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 86:6987-6991, 1989]. Here we report that detergent-extracted macrocilia show an ATP-independent conformational change in response to high concentrations of Ca, Ba, or Sr ions. When applied locally by iontophoresis, these ions induce a rapid planar curvature of the distal end of the macrociliary shaft, followed by a slower relaxation to the rest position. Tip curling occurs in a direction opposite to the physiological Ca/Ba/Sr response. When applied uniformly in the bath, a threshold concentration of 10(-1) M Sr is required to induce curling of the tip, and the distal ends remain curved. Calmodulin antagonists do not inhibit the tip curling response. Previous workers found that Ca induces changes in the helical shape of isolated doublet microtubules [Miki-Noumura and Kamiya, Exp. Cell Res. 97:451-453, 1976; Miki-Noumura and Kamiya, J. Cell Biol. 81:355-360, 1979; Takasaki and Miki-Noumura, J. Mol. Biol. 158:317-324, 1982] and sperm axonemes [Okuno and Brokaw, Cell Motil. 1:349-362, 1981] and suggested that conformational changes in microtubules may play a role in Ca regulation of ciliary motility. We propose that the Ca/Ba/Sr-induced curling of the macrociliary tip is due to similar helical changes of doublet microtubules, some of which in macrocilia are prevented from sliding by permanent connections (compartmenting lamellae) between adjacent axonemes within the shaft. Although the tip curling response does not appear to be directly relevant to the physiological Ca response of macrocilia, it provides a novel system for investigating Ca-induced conformational changes of microtubules independent of dynein-powered active sliding.