Uptake of bile acids into the liver cell occurs via active transport or passive diffusion. In a model system, passive diffusion was studied in liposomes using pyranine fluorescence. Rate constants for the diffusion of diverse more polar or more apolar bile acids were examined. Hydrophobic lithocholic acid (LCA) revealed a maximal rate constant of 0.057 s(-1); with the polar ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), the value was 0.019 s(-1). UDCA (3 mol%) effectively decreased the rate constant of 0.1 mM chenodeoxycholic acid (CDCA), whereas cholesterol reached a similar decrease only between 5 and 10 mol%. At higher concentrations of CDCA (above 1 mM) or LCA (0.3-0.4 mM), breaking up of liposomal structure was confirmed by light-scattering decrease and increase of carboxyfluorescein fluorescence. Changes in lipid composition of phosphatidylcholine (PC)- small unilamellar vesicles (SUVs) or large unilamellar vesicles (LUVs) also caused decreasing rate constants. For a cardiolipin (CL):PC ratio of 1:20 the CDCA (0.1 mM) rate constant was 71% lower (0.015 s(-1)) and for a sphingomyelin (SM):PC ratio of 2:1 the rate constant was 50% lower (0.026 s(-1)). Changes in membrane fluidity were detected using membrane anisotropy measurements with the 1,6-diphenyl-1,3, 5-hexatriene (DPH) method. Membrane fluidity was reduced with cholesterol- but not with CL- or SM-containing SUVs (ratio: cholesterol, CL, SM:PC of 1:5). This model system is currently used for the analysis of more complex lipid vesicles resembling the plasma/hepatocyte membrane, which is either stabilized or destabilized by appropriate conditions. The results should become clinically relevant.