Pathogenic mycobacteria survive in macrophages of the host organism by residing in phagosomes which they prevent from undergoing maturation and fusion with lysosomes. Several molecular mechanisms have been associated with the phagosome maturation block. Here we show for Mycobacterium avium in mouse bone marrow-derived macrophages that the maturation block required an all-around close apposition between the mycobacterial surface and the phagosome membrane. When small (0.1 microm) latex beads were covalently attached to the mycobacterial surface to act as a spacer that interfered with a close apposition, phagosomes rapidly acquired lysosomal characteristics as indicators for maturation and fusion with lysosomes. As a result, several mycobacteria were delivered into single phagolysosomes. Detailed electron-microscope observations of phagosome morphology over a 7-day post-infection period showed a linear correlation between bead attachment and phagosome-lysosome fusion. After about 3 days post infection, conditions inside phagolysosomes caused a gradual release of beads. This allowed mycobacteria to re-establish a close apposition with the surrounding membrane and sequester themselves into individual, non-maturing phagosomes which had lost lysosomal characteristics. By rescuing themselves from phagolysosomes, mycobacteria remained fully viable and able to multiply at the normal rate. In order to unify the present observations and previously reported mechanisms for the maturation block, we discuss evidence that they may act synergistically to interfere with 'Phagosome Membrane Economics' by causing relative changes in incoming and outgoing endocytic membrane fluxes.