Efflux of contents from small unilamellar vesicles of various compositions, conaining a highly quenched fluorescent compound (calcein, 175 mM) was determined as a function of temperature in the presence and absence of human serum. Efflux of calcein from the liposomes was monitored as an increase in fluorescence as calcein became dequenched upon release from the liposomes. The presence of serum significantly increased liposome leakage in all cases. Incorporation of increasing molar ratios of cholesterol into liposomes reduced leakage of calcein from liposomes incubated with buffer and with serum. Leakage was significantly faster from liposomes with an osmotic gradient across the membrane (higher inside) than from equiosmolar liposomes. The leakage of [14C]sucrose from egg lecithin liposomes at 37 degrees C was also dramatically increased in the presence of serum.