In contrast to normal microvessels, those that supply tumors are strikingly hyperpermeable to circulating macromolecules such as plasma proteins. This leakiness is largely attributable to a tumor-secreted cytokine, vascular permeability factor (VPF). Tracer studies have shown that macromolecules cross tumor vascular endothelium by way of a recently described cytoplasmic organelle, the vesiculo-vacuolar organelle or VVO (VVOs are grapelike clusters of interconnected, uncoated vesicles and vacuoles). However, equivalent VVOs are also present in the cytoplasm of normal venules that do not leak substantial amounts of plasma protein. To explain these findings, we hypothesized that VPF increased the permeability of tumor blood vessels by increasing VVO function and that the VVOs of normal venules were relatively impermeable in the absence of VPF stimulation. To test this hypothesis, VPF was injected intradermally in normal animals after intravenous injection of a soluble macromolecular tracer, ferritin, whose extravasation could be followed by electron microscopy. VPF caused normal venules to leak ferritin, and, as predicted by our hypothesis, ferritin extravasated by way of VVOs, just as in hyperpermeable tumor microvessels. Ultrathin (14-nm) serial electron microscopic sections and computer-aided three-dimensional reconstructions better defined VVO structure. VVOs occupied 16-18% of endothelial cytoplasm in normal venules. Individual VVOs were clusters of numerous (median, 124) interconnected vesicles and vacuoles that formed complex pathways across venular endothelium with multiple openings to both luminal and abluminal surfaces. Like VPF, histamine and serotonin also stimulated ferritin extravasation across venules by way of VVOs. Together, these data establish VVOs as the major pathway by which soluble plasma proteins exit venules in response to several mediators that increase venular hyperpermeability. These same mediators also increased the extravasation of colloidal carbon, but this large particulate nonphysiological tracer exited venules primarily through endothelial gaps.