When membrane-attached beads are pulled vertically by a laser tweezers, a membrane tube of constant diameter (tether) is formed. We found that the force on the bead (tether force) did not depend on tether length over a wide range of tether lengths, which indicates that a previously unidentified reservoir of membrane and not stretch of the plasma membrane provides the tether membrane. Plots of tether force vs. tether length have an initial phase, an elongation phase, and an exponential phase. During the major elongation phase, tether force is constant, buffered by the "membrane reservoir." Finally, there is an abrupt exponential rise in force that brings the tether out of the trap, indicating depletion of the membrane reservoir. In chick embryo fibroblasts and 3T3 fibroblasts, the maximum tether lengths that can be pulled at a velocity of 4 microm/s are 5.1 +/- 0. 3 and 5.0 +/- 0.2 microm, respectively. To examine the importance of the actin cytoskeleton, we treated cells with cytochalasin B or D and found that the tether lengths increased dramatically to 13.8 +/- 0.8 and 12.0 +/- 0.7 microm, respectively. Similarly, treatment of the cells with colchicine and nocodazole results in more than a twofold increase in tether length. We found that elevation of membrane tension (through osmotic pressure, a long-term elevation of tether force, or a number of transitory increases) increased reservoir size over the whole cell. Using a tracking system to hold tether force on the bead constant near its maximal length in the exponential phase, the rate of elongation of the tethers was measured as a function of tether force (membrane tension). The rate of elongation of tethers was linearly dependent on the tether force and reflected an increase in size of the reservoir. Increases in the reservoir caused by tension increases on one side of the cell caused increases in reservoir size on the other side of the cell. Thus, we suggest that cells maintain a plasma membrane reservoir to buffer against changes in membrane tension and that the reservoir is increased with membrane tension or disruption of the cytoskeleton.