Hepatocellular secretion of bile salts into the biliary space induces phospholipid and cholesterol secretion, but the mechanism for integrated lipid secretion is poorly understood. Knockout mice unable to make the canalicular membrane mdr2 P-glycoprotein exhibit normal rates of bile salt secretion, yet are virtually incapable of secreting biliary phospholipid and cholesterol. As the mdr2 P-glycoprotein is thought to mediate transmembrane movement of phospholipid molecules, this mouse model was used to examine the mechanism for biliary phospholipid secretion. In wild-type mdr2 (+/+) mice, ultrarapid cryofixation of livers in situ revealed abundant unilamellar lipid vesicles within bile canalicular lumina. Although 74% of vesicles were adherent to the external aspect of the canalicular plasma membrane, bilayer exocytosis was not observed. Vesicle numbers in mdr2 (+/-) and (-/-) mice were 55 and 12% of wild-type levels, respectively. In a strain of mdr2 (-/-) mice which had been "rescued" by heterozygous genomic insertion of the MDR3 gene, the human homologue of the murine mdr2 gene, vesicle numbers returned to 95% of wild-type levels. Our findings indicate that biliary phospholipid is secreted as vesicles by a process largely dependent on the action of the murine mdr2 P-glycoprotein or human MDR3 P-glycoprotein. We conclude that mdr2-mediated phospholipid translocation from the internal to external hemileaflet of the canalicular membrane permits exovesiculation of the external hemileaflet, a vesiculation process promoted by the detergent environment of the bile canalicular lumen.