Highly curved cell membrane structures, such as plasmalemmal vesicles (caveolae) and clathrin-coated pits, facilitate many cell functions, including the clustering of membrane receptors and transport of specific extracellular macromolecules by endothelial cells. These structures are subject to large mechanical deformations when the plasma membrane is stretched and subject to a change of its curvature. To enhance our understanding of plasmalemmal vesicles we need to improve the understanding of the mechanics in regions of high membrane curvatures. We examine here, theoretically, the shapes of plasmalemmal vesicles assuming that they consist of three membrane domains: an inner domain with high curvature, an outer domain with moderate curvature, and an outermost flat domain, all in the unstressed state. We assume the membrane properties are the same in these domains with membrane bending elasticity as well as in-plane shear elasticity. Special emphasis is placed on the effects of membrane curvature and in-plane shear elasticity on the mechanics of vesicle during unfolding by application of membrane tension. The vesicle shapes were computed by minimization of bending and in-plane shear strain energy. Mechanically stable vesicles were identified with characteristic membrane necks. Upon stretch of the membrane, the vesicle necks disappeared relatively abruptly leading to membrane shapes that consist of curved indentations. While the resting shape of vesicles is predominantly affected by the membrane spontaneous curvatures, the membrane shear elasticity (for a range of values recorded in the red cell membrane) makes a significant contribution as the vesicle is subject to stretch and unfolding. The membrane tension required to unfold the vesicle is sensitive with respect to its shape, especially as the vesicle becomes fully unfolded and approaches a relative flat shape.

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