Pulsatile Gating of Giant Vesicles Containing Macromolecular Crowding Agents Induced by Colligative Nonideality

The ability of large macromolecules to exhibit nontrivial deviations in colligative properties of their aqueous solutions is well-appreciated in polymer physics. Here, we show that this colligative nonideality subjects giant lipid vesicles containing inert macromolecular crowding agents to osmotic pressure differentials when bathed in small-molecule osmolytes at comparable concentrations. The ensuing influx of water across the semipermeable membrane induces characteristic swell-burst cycles: here, cyclical and damped oscillations in size, tension, and membrane phase separation occur en route to equilibration. Mediated by synchronized formation of transient pores, these cycles orchestrate pulsewise ejection of macromolecules from the vesicular interior reducing the osmotic differential in a stepwise manner. These experimental findings are fully corroborated by a theoretical model derived by explicitly incorporating the contributions of the solution viscosity, solute diffusivity, and the colligative nonideality of the osmotic pressure in a previously reported continuum description. Simulations based on this model account for the differences in the details of the noncolligatively induced swell-burst cycles, including numbers and periods of the repeating cycles, as well as pore lifetimes. Taken together, our observations recapitulate behaviors of vesicles and red blood cells experiencing sudden osmotic shocks due to large (hundreds of osmolars) differences in the concentrations of small molecule osmolytes and link intravesicular macromolecular crowding with membrane remodeling. They further suggest that any tendency for spontaneous overcrowding in single giant vesicles is opposed by osmotic stresses and requires independent specific interactions, such as associative chemical interactions or those between the crowders and the membrane boundary.