In this paper, we develop a theory for viscoelastic behavior of large membrane deformations and apply the analysis to the relaxation of projections produced by small micropipette aspiration of red cell discocytes. We show that this relaxation is dominated by the membrane viscosity and that the cytoplasmic and extracellular fluid flow have negligible influence on the relaxation time and can be neglected. From preliminary data, we estimate the total membrane "viscosity" when the membrane material behaves in an elastic solid manner. The total membrane viscosity is calculated to be 10(-3) dyn-s/cm, which is a surface viscosity that is about three orders of magnitude greater than the surface viscosity of lipid membrane components (as determined by "fluidity" measurements). It is apparent that the lipid bilayer contributes little to the fluid dynamic behavior of the whole plasma membrane and that a structural matrix dominates the viscous dissipation. However, we show that viscous flow in the membrane is not responsible for the temporal dependence of the isotropic membrane tension required to produce lysis and that the previous estimates of Rand, Katchalsky, et al., for "viscosity" are six to eight orders of magnitude too large.
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