Eukaryotic cells use clathrin-mediated endocytosis to take up a large range of extracellular cargos. During endocytosis, a clathrin coat forms on the plasma membrane, but it remains controversial when and how it is remodeled into a spherical vesicle.
Here, we use 3D superresolution microscopy to determine the precise geometry of the clathrin coat at large numbers of endocytic sites. Through pseudo-temporal sorting, we determine the average trajectory of clathrin remodeling during endocytosis. We find that clathrin coats assemble first on flat membranes to 50% of the coat area, before they become rapidly and continuously bent, and confirm this mechanism in three cell lines. We introduce the cooperative curvature model , which is based on positive feedback for curvature generation. It accurately describes the measured shapes and dynamics of the clathrin coat and could represent a general mechanism for clathrin coat remodeling on the plasma membrane.