MscL is multimeric protein that forms a large conductance mechanosensitive channel in the inner membrane of Escherichia coli. Since MscL is gated by tension transmitted through the lipid bilayer, we have been able to measure its gating parameters as a function of absolute tension. Using purified MscL reconstituted in liposomes, we recorded single channel currents and varied the pressure gradient (P) to vary the tension (T). The tension was calculated from P and the radius of curvature was obtained using video microscopy of the patch. The probability of being open (Po) has a steep sigmoidal dependence on T, with a midpoint (T1/2) of 11.8 dyn/cm. The maximal slope sensitivity of Po/Pc was 0.63 dyn/cm per e-fold. Assuming a Boltzmann distribution, the energy difference between the closed and fully open states in the unstressed membrane was ΔE = 18.6 kBT. If the mecha-nosensitivity arises from tension acting on a change of in-plane area (ΔA), the free energy, TΔA, would correspond to ΔA = 6.5 nm2. MscL is not a binary channel, but has four conducting states and a closed state. Most transition rates are independent of tension, but the rate-limiting step to opening is the transition between the closed state and the lowest conductance substate. This transition thus involves the greatest ΔA. When summed over all transitions, the in-plane area change from closed to fully open was 6 nm2, agreeing with the value obtained in the two-state analysis. Assuming a cylindrical channel, the dimensions of the (fully open) pore were comparable to ΔA. Thus, the tension dependence of channel gating is primarily one of increasing the external channel area to accommodate the pore of the smallest conducting state. The higher conducting states appear to involve conformational changes internal to the channel that don't involve changes in area.