Although somatic embryos of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) had acquired some tolerance to desiccation at the cotyledonary stage of development (22 d after plating), additional culturing in 20 ?M abscisic acid (ABA) for 8 d induced greater desiccation tolerance, as determined by increased germination. Compared with fast drying, slow drying of the ABA-treated embryos improved desiccation tolerance. However, slow drying of non-ABA-treated embryos led to the complete loss of germination capacity, while some fast-dried embryos survived. An electron paramagnetic resonance spin probe technique and in vivo Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy revealed that cellular membrane integrity and -helical protein secondary structure were maintained during drying in embryos cultured in media enriched with 20 ?M ABA, but not in embryos cultured in the absence of ABA. Slow-dried, non-ABA-treated embryos had low oligosaccharide to sucrose ratios, an increased proportion of ß-sheet protein secondary structures and broad membrane phase transitions extending over a temperature range of more than 60 °C, suggestive of irreversible phase separations. The spin probe study showed evidence of imbibitional damage, which could be alleviated by prehydration in humid air. These observations emphasize the importance of appropriate drying and prehydration protocols for the survival and storage of somatic embryos. It is suggested that ABA also plays a role in suppressing metabolism, thus increasing the level of desiccation tolerance; this is particularly evident under stressful conditions such as slow drying.