The modulus of elasticity of artificial and biological membranes can be determined in membrane vesicles by monitoring the limitation of vesicular swelling during a slow decrease in medium tonicity. The higher the elastic modulus of the membrane, the more effectively the vesicles will resist swelling. This method assumes that the solutes in the system are impermeant, so that the final volume of the vesicles is determined solely by a balance of osmotic and hydrostatic forces. In this paper, we present the results of computer simulation of vesicular swelling in which the solute permeability of the membrane was varied. We find that even a small permeability will lead to a loss of solute from the vesicle that will retard the increase in vesicular volume during dilution of the medium, and thereby cause the apparent modulus of elasticity to be much greater than the true value. For example, if one takes the mannitol permeability in brush border membrane vesicles from small intestine to be 0.004 micron/s (a reasonable estimate), one finds that a vesicular swelling study using mannitol as the principal solute will show the apparent elastic modulus of the vesicles to be greater than 10 times larger than the true value. With higher permeabilities, the effect is even more dramatic. We conclude that determination of impermeance of solutes is a critical prerequisite for making valid determinations of membrane elastic modulus using the vesicular swelling method.
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