• membrane tension;
  • membrane tubulation;
  • spontaneous curvature of lipid bilayer;
  • in vitro contractile vacuole;
  • Paramecium


The contractile vacuole complex is a membrane-bound osmoregulatory organelle of fresh water protozoa such as Paramecium. In Paramecium it consists of a central vacuole (the contractile vacuole) and 5–10 arms that radially extend from the vacuole into the cytosol (the radial arms). Excess cytosolic water, acquired osmotically, is segregated by the radial arms and enters the vacuole, so that the vacuole swells (the fluid-filling phase). The vacuole then rounds (the rounding phase) and the radial arms sever from the vacuole. The vacuole membrane then fuses with the plasma membrane at the pore region and the pore opens. The vacuole shrinks as its fluid is discharged through the pore (the fluid-discharging phase). The pore closes when the fluid has been discharged. The radial arms then reattach to the vacuole, so that the vacuole swells again as the fluid enters from the arms (the next fluid-filling phase). We found that the vacuole continued to show rounding and slackening even after it together with a small amount of cytosol had been isolated from the cell. Using a microcantilever placed on the surface of the vacuole the tension of the in vitro vacuole increased to 5×10−3N m−1 as the vacuole rounds, and its lowest value was 1×10−4N m−1 during slackening. We propose a hypothesis that an increase in the spontaneous curvature of the organelle's membrane leads to an increase in membrane tension and thus to the vacuole's rounding, severing of the radial arms from the vacuole, and opening of the pore. Conversely, a decrease in the spontaneous curvature accompanied by a decrease in membrane tension could lead to the closing of the pore and reattachment of the radial arm at the start of the fluid-filling phase.