Studies with isolated chromatin show that higher order chromosome architecture can be regulated by ionic conditions; however, the physiological relevance of these findings remains unknown. In the present study, chromosome architecture was analyzed in situ in living and detergent-extracted cells exposed to different ionic conditions. In intact mitotic endothelial cells, chromosomes instantly unfolded as detected by phase contrast microscopy when the salt concentration in the culture medium was increased from 110 to 410 mM NaCl or from 0 to 65 mM MgCl2. When the ions were removed and the preexisting culture conditions were restored, chromosomes refolded into their original shapes and subsequently underwent mitotic division. Similar reversible effects were observed on nucleolar structure in living interphase cells as well as on mitotic chromosomes exposed to high salt after cell membranes were removed by treatment with Triton X-100. This permeabilized mitotic cell model was then used to identify proteins that remained tightly associated with chromatin during the ion-driven chromosome unfolding-refolding cycle and which therefore could be important for maintenance of chromosome structure. Under these conditions in which disassembled chromosomes retained their ability to fully recondense, more than 95% of Topoisomerase I was extracted whereas approximately 25% of Topoisomerase IIalpha and 50% of Histone H1 remained tightly associated with chromatin. These data demonstrate the sensitivity of chromosome structure to variations in ionic concentration in situ and suggest that there are at least two distinct pools of Histone H1 and Topoisomerase IIalpha associated with chromatin during mitosis, one of which may be required for chromosome compaction.