The contractile vacuole of the fresh water protozoan Paramecium is a membrane-bound vesicle that expels excess cytosolic water, acquired osmotically, through its periodic exocytotic activity. The in vitro contractile vacuole, isolated in a small amount of cytosol from the Paramecium cell and confined under mineral oil, showed periodic rounding and slackening at regular intervals for an extended time. The contractile vacuole rounded against the cytosol-mineral oil boundary tension. The tension at the surface of the contractile vacuole is, therefore, assumed to increase during the rounding phase. We first estimated the tension relative to the boundary tension from the degree of compression of the contractile vacuole by the boundary. We then determined the absolute value for the tension at the surface of the contractile vacuole from the degree of bending of an elastic carbon fiber microcantilever (8 microm thick; 2 mm long), whose free end was placed at the surface of an in vitro contractile vacuole. The tension was found to increase to its maximum value of approximately 5 mN m(-)(1) when the contractile vacuole rounded. This value was more than 35 times higher than that for the slackened contractile vacuole. Electron micrographs of conventional thin sections of chemically fixed in vitro contractile vacuoles as well as those of in vivo contractile vacuoles obtained from rapid frozen and cryosubstituted cells revealed the lack of any ultrastructural evidence for the presence of a fibrous network system surrounding the contractile vacuole. Thus we conclude that the mechanism(s) by which tension is developed at the surface of the contractile vacuole membrane resides in the contractile vacuole membrane itself. We propose a hypothesis that periodic changes in the spontaneous curvature of the contractile vacuole's lipid bilayer membrane is involved in the periodic development of higher contractile vacuole membrane tension. The isolated CV promises to be an excellent model system for understanding the molecular mechanisms of the dynamics of biological membrane.