Expression in mammalian COS cells and an efficient microtiter-based strategy for immunoselection was used in a novel approach to identify genes encoding plant membrane proteins. COS cells were transfected with an Arabidopsis thaliana root cDNA library constructed in a bacterial mammalian shuttle vector and screened with an antiserum raised against purified deglycosylated integral plasma membrane proteins from A. thaliana roots. Antibodies directed against a prominent 27 kDa antigen led to the identification of five different genes. They comprised two subfamilies related to the major intrinsic protein (MIP) superfamily and were named plasma membrane intrinsic proteins, PIP1 and PIP2, since the cellular localization of PIP1 and most probably PIP2 proteins in the plasma membrane was independently confirmed by their cosegregation with marker enzymes during aqueous two-phase partitioning. Surprisingly, expression in Xenopus laevis oocytes revealed that all five PIP mRNAs coded for Hg(2+)-sensitive water transport facilitating activities. There had been no previous evidence of the existence of water channels in the plasma membrane of plant cells and the high diffusional water permeability of the lipid bilayer was considered to be sufficient for water exchange. Nevertheless, Northern and Western analyses showed that the PIP genes are constitutively and possibly even redundantly expressed from the small A. thaliana genome.