Members of the major intrinsic protein (MIP) family, described in plants as water-selective channels (aquaporins), can also transport small neutral solutes in other organisms. In the present work, we characterize the permeability of plant vacuolar membrane (tonoplast; TP) and plasma membrane (PM) to non-electrolytes and evaluate the contribution of MIP homologues to such transport. PM and TP vesicles were purified from tobacco suspension cells by free-flow electrophoresis, and membrane permeabilities for a wide range of neutral solutes including urea, polyols of different molecular size, and amino acids were investigated by stopped-flow spectrofluorimetry. For all solutes tested, TP vesicles were found to be more permeable than their PM counterparts, with for instance urea permeabilities from influx experiments of 74.9 +/- 9.6 x 10(-6) and 1.0 +/- 0.3 x 10(-6) cm sec-1, respectively. Glycerol and urea transport in TP vesicles exhibited features of a facilitated diffusion process. This and the high channel-mediated permeability of the same TP vesicles to water suggested a common role for MIP proteins in water and solute transport. A cDNA encoding a novel tonoplast intrinsic protein (TIP) homologue named Nicotiana tabacum TIPa (Nt-TIPa) was isolated from tobacco cells. Immunodetection of Nt-TIPa in purified membrane fractions confirmed that the protein is localized in the TP. Functional expression of Nt-TIPa in Xenopus oocytes showed this protein to be permeable to water and solutes such as urea and glycerol. These features could account for the transport selectivity profile determined in purified TP vesicles. These results support the idea that plant aquaporins have a dual function in water and solute transport. Because Nt-TIPa diverges in sequence from solute permeable aquaporins characterized in other organisms, its identification also provides a novel tool for investigating the molecular determinants of aquaporin transport selectivity.