The contribution of microfibrils to the mechanical performance of the meshwork of elastic tissue in mature pig aorta was investigated by comparing the properties of autoclaved tissue containing elastin and microfibrils with autoclaved tissue that had been treated with dithiothreitol (DTT) or hot alkali to remove the microfibrils from the elastin. The uniaxial tensile stress-strain curve of the autoclaved tissue was linear to a strain of 0.6 or 0.7 and increased nonlinearly up to the breaking strain. The nonlinearity at high strains could not be accounted for by nonGaussian behavior and was attributed to the progressive alignment of the elastic fibers with strain. Removal of the microfibrils with DTT or treatment with calcium reduced the modulus at low strains by 12% and 4% respectively and increased the modulus at high strains, suggesting that the microfibrils have the capacity to change the orientation of the elastin fibers, possibly transmitting some of the load from one elastin fiber to another. Our findings suggest two possible roles for the microfibrils in vivo: distributing the load throughout the elastic fibers of the arterial wall and direct load bearing. The modulus and the breaking stress of the rings decreased linearly with the duration of alkali treatment starting immediately. By 45 min the modulus had dropped by 30% and the breaking stress by 50%, even though the amino acid content of the extract gave little evidence of elastin hydrolysis. Alkali treatment should not be used on autoclaved pig aortic tissue to be used for mechanical testing.