Raffinose family oligosaccharides (RFO) have been implicated as protective agents in the cellular dehydration tolerance, especially of many plant seeds. However, their efficacy in stabilizing membranes during dehydration has never been systematically investigated. We have analyzed the effects of sucrose, raffinose, stachyose, and verbascose on liposome stability during air-drying. With increasing degree of polymerization (DP), the RFO were progressively better able to stabilize liposomes against leakage of aqueous content and against membrane fusion after rehydration. Indeed, there was a very tight linear correlation between fusion and leakage for all RFO. These data indicate that increased protection of liposomes against leakage with increasing DP is due to better protection against fusion. This is in accord with the higher glass transition temperature of the longer chain oligosaccharides. Further evidence for the influence of glass transitions on membrane stability in the dry state was provided by experiments testing the temperature dependence of membrane fusion. During incubation at temperatures up to 95 degrees C for 2 h, fusion increased less with temperature in the presence of higher DP sugars. This indicates that RFO with a higher glass transition temperature are better able to protect dry membranes at elevated temperatures. In addition, Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy showed a reduction of the gel to liquid-crystalline phase transition temperature of dry liposomes in the presence of all investigated sugars. However, the RFO became slightly less effective with increasing chain length, again pointing to a decisive role for preventing fusion. A direct interaction of the RFO with the lipids was indicated by a strong effect of the sugars on the phosphate asymmetric stretch region of the infrared spectrum.