Cell plate formation in tobacco root tips and synchronized dividing suspension cultured tobacco BY-2 cells was examined using cryofixation and immunocytochemical methods. Due to the much improved preservation of the cells, many new structural intermediates have been resolved, which has led to a new model of cell plate formation in higher plants. Our electron micrographs demonstrate that cell plate formation consists of the following stages: (1) the arrival of Golgi-derived vesicles in the equatorial plane, (2) the formation of thin (20 +/- 6 nm) tubes that grow out of individual vesicles and fuse with others giving rise to a continuous, interwoven, tubulo-vesicular network, (3) the consolidation of the tubulo-vesicular network into an interwoven smooth tubular network rich in callose and then into a fenestrated plate-like structure, (4) the formation of hundreds of finger-like projections at the margins of the cell plate that fuse with the parent cell membrane, and (5) cell plate maturation that includes closing of the plate fenestrae and cellulose synthesis. Although this is a temporal chain of events, a developing cell plate may be simultaneously involved in all of these stages because cell plate formation starts in the cell center and then progresses centrifugally towards the cell periphery. The "leading edge" of the expanding cell plate is associated with the phragmoplast microtubule domain that becomes concentrically displaced during this process. Thus, cell plate formation can be summarized into two phases: first the formation of a membrane network in association with the phragmoplast microtubule domain; second, cell wall assembly within this network after displacement of the microtubules. The phragmoplast microtubules end in a filamentous matrix that encompasses the delicate tubulo-vesicular networks but not the tubular networks and fenestrated plates. Clathrin-coated buds/vesicles and multivesicular bodies are also typical features of the network stages of cell plate formation, suggesting that excess membrane material may be recycled in a selective manner. Immunolabeling data indicate that callose is the predominant lumenal component of forming cell plates and that it forms a coat-like structure on the membrane surface. We postulate that callose both helps to mechanically stabilize the early delicate membrane networks of forming cell plates, and to create a spreading force that widens the tubules and converts them into plate-like structures. Cellulose is first detected in the late smooth tubular network stage and its appearance seems to coincide with the flattening and stiffening of the cell plate.