Living cells develop their own characteristic shapes depending on their physiological functions, and their morphologies are based on the mechanical characteristics of the cytoskeleton and of membranes. To investigate the role of lipid membranes in morphogenesis, we constructed a simple system that can manipulate liposomes and measure the forces required to transform their shapes. Two polystyrene beads (1 μm in diameter) were encapsulated in giant liposomes and were manipulated using double-beam laser tweezers. Without any specific interaction between the lipid membrane and beads, mechanical forces could be applied to the liposome membrane from the inside. Spherical liposomes transformed into a lemon shape with increasing tension, and tubular membrane projections were subsequently generated in the tips at either end. This process is similar to the liposomal transformation caused by elongation of encapsulated cytoskeletons. In the elongation stage of lemon-shaped liposomes, the force required for the transformation became larger as the end-to-end length increased. Just before the tubular membrane was generated, the force reached the maximum strength (∼11 pN). However, immediately after the tubular membrane developed, the force suddenly decreased and was maintained at a constant strength (∼4 pN) that was independent of further tube elongation or shortening, even though there was no excess membrane reservoir as occurs in living cells. When the tube length was shortened to ∼2 μm, the liposome reversed to a lemon shape and the force temporarily increased (to ∼7 pN). These results indicate that the simple application of mechanical force is sufficient to form a protrusion in a membrane, that a critical force and length is needed to form and to maintain the protrusion, and suggest that the lipid bilayer itself has the ability to buffer the membrane tension.
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