The contents of secretory vesicles ("trichocysts") were isolated in the condensed state from Paramecium cells. It is well known that the majority portion of trichocysts perform a rapid decondensation process during exocytosis, which is visible in the light microscope. We have analyzed this condensed leads to decondensed transition in vitro and determined some relevant parameters. In the condensed state, free phosphate (and possibly magnesium) ions screen local surplus charges. This is supported by x-ray spectra recorded from individual trichocysts (prepared by physical methods) in a scanning transmission electron microscope. Calcium, as well as other ions that eliminate phosphate by precipitation, produces decondensation in vitro. Under in vivo conditions, Ca2+ enters the vesicle lumen from the outside medium, once an exocytic opening has been formed. Consequently, within the intact cell, membrane fusion and protein decondensation take place with optimal timing. Ca2+ might then trigger decondensation in the same way by precipitating phosphate ions (as it does in vitro) and, indeed, such precipitates (again yielding Ca and P signals in x-ray spectra) can be recognized in situ under trigger conditions. As decondensation is a unidirectional, rapid process in Paramecium cells, it would contribute to drive the discharge of the secretory contents to the outside. Further implications on the energetics of exocytosis are discussed.

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